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Updated: November 24, 2011 18:36 IST

Rival Palestinian leaders meet in Cairo

AP
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This May 4, 2011 photo shows Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The two leaders met in Cairo on Thursday for talks on an interim unity government.
AP This May 4, 2011 photo shows Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The two leaders met in Cairo on Thursday for talks on an interim unity government.

The long-estranged leaders of the two rival Palestinian political movements held rare talks on Thursday in Cairo to try to rescue a power-sharing arrangement that has stalled over who should lead an interim unity government.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Mashaal, chief of Hamas, held their first working meeting since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving Mr. Abbas with only the West Bank. Mr. Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in both territories.

In May, the two reached an agreement in principle that called for setting up an interim unity government, holding Parliamentary and Presidential elections within a year and merging rival security forces.

However, talks on carrying out the agreement quickly deadlocked over who should serve as interim Prime Minister, with Hamas rejecting Mr. Abbas’ candidate, West Bank-based Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas official, said all elements of the power-sharing agreement were on the table on Thursday. After meeting one-on-one for about 90 minutes, the leaders were joined by their delegations, Mr. Barhoum said.

Some Abbas aides have suggested the Palestinian President is ready to sacrifice Mr. Fayyad, a political independent who is popular in the West, in order to move a unity deal forward. The interim government is to be made up of technocrats without clear political affiliation.

Even if progress is made on Thursday towards forming a government, it appears unlikely the two sides can go through with all aspects of the agreement.

Mr. Abbas would face a Western backlash and possibly the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid for merging his security forces with those of the widely shunned Hamas. Neither the Islamists nor Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement seem eager to risk their current positions of power in elections.

At the same time, the political split is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, and public pressure is a key reason why Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mashaal are trying to heal it. Region-wide changes over the past few months, including the failure to resume meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, have given an additional push toward reconciliation.

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