JERUSALEM -- Leaders of rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas will meet today in a new venue, but they confront the same obstacles to a power-sharing arrangement that have torpedoed past negotiations.
The two sides gather in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in what could be a final attempt to form a unity government aimed at ending their yearlong power struggle and breaking the Western aid embargo imposed after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Stakes are high. The talks come after a new spate of factional clashes in the Gaza Strip that left more than two dozen Palestinians dead and dimmed hopes of resolving the deadlock through peaceful negotiations.
A two-day-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip appeared to be largely holding yesterday, although a Hamas official was abducted in the West Bank city of Ramallah, most likely by Fatah gunmen.
The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, has said he will call early elections if talks over forming a unity government fail again. Hamas rejects early elections as illegal, accusing Fatah of seeking its ouster. Many Palestinians worry that a failure to reach accommodation could plunge the Gaza Strip and West Bank into further violence and continued economic hardship.
Abbas and his party's delegation will meet with exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal and other key representatives of the Islamic militant group, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Abbas met Mashaal, a hard-liner based in Damascus, in the Syrian capital last month, but their groups remained at an impasse.
Haniyeh said yesterday that Hamas was committed to easing tensions, and he expressed optimism that the two sides would strike a deal in spite of the obstacles. "We have no choice but to reach an agreement," he said.
The talks are to take place under the auspices of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who invited the Palestinian factions amid a series of deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip. By lending the kingdom's regional influence to the mediation effort, Saudi leaders hope to promote their role as peace brokers and to dim the appeal of Iran, which has expanded its ties with Hamas by pledging millions of dollars to make up for lost aid.
Fatah officials also expressed hope for a breakthrough that would ease factional hostilities and satisfy Western conditions sufficiently to get direct aid flowing again to the Palestinian Authority. Western donor nations cut aid last year with the stipulation that it be resumed only if the Hamas-led government recognized Israel, renounced violence and promised to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas has rejected those conditions.
The differences between Fatah and Hamas remain wide, and it was unclear whether they would bridge them this time.
Abbas favors a negotiated, two-state solution to the conflict with Israel and has sought to get Hamas to agree on a shared political program that would at least implicitly recognize the Jewish state by promising to "commit" to past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
But Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has proposed a long-term truce and suggested wording for the government's political program that is purposefully vague, such as saying it would "respect" past agreements, as long as they were in the interest of the Palestinian people.
It remained to be seen whether anything short of explicit recognition of Israel would meet Western demands.
Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.