MECCA, Saudi Arabia, (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals began crisis talks on Wednesday with a pledge not to leave Saudi Arabia until they had reached an agreement that would end deadly factional fighting.
Live television footage showed Abbas and officials from Islamist Hamas, including Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, sitting at a round table in the city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
“We will not leave this place without agreement, God willing. We have come with this intention,” Meshaal said before talks began. “The international community will not be able, if it finds us unified, not to respect our wishes and lift the unjust blockade.”
Abbas said he hoped the talks would lay the ground for the formation of a unity government that would help end Western sanctions, calling the factional violence a “catastrophe”, “black days” that no Palestinian wanted to see repeated.
Adding extra urgency to Palestinian efforts to end the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would meet Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Feb. 19 for a “significant” bid to restart long stalled peace talks.
Speaking in Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice “firmly believes that there are the underpinnings in the region that exist to make some progress, to exploit an opening and try to bring the sides closer together.”
Abbas’ Fatah movement and Islamist group Hamas, which won a parliamentary election last year, have been locked in a power struggle that has killed more than 90 people since December.
Previous efforts to stem the bloodshed and find common political ground have resulted in short-lived ceasefires and a threat by Abbas to call a new parliamentary election, a move Hamas has said would be tantamount to a coup.
Both Hamas and Fatah leaders urged their forces at the start of the Mecca talks to show utmost restraint.
King Abdullah, who called the reconciliation talks, urged the Palestinian leaders on Tuesday to “respond to the voice of reason” and avoid a civil war that would put decades of gains in the struggle with Israel at risk, Saudi media said.
Pressure will be on Hamas to compromise.
Israel and its ally the United States do not want Abbas to agree to a unity government unless Hamas meets Western demands to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
Fatah officials in Mecca say they will insist that a new unity government adhere to a 2002 Arab peace initiative, sponsored by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, that offers Israel a comprehensive peace in return for a Palestinian state.
They will also focus on a Hamas acceptance of the programme of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) — another means of achieving an implicit recognition of Israel that could end an international aid blockade.
Haniyeh said Hamas was hoping for a comprehensive deal not stop-gap measures such as the ceasefires that had failed in the past.
“We want a comprehensive agreement that governs all inter-Palestinian relations, a complete one not a partial one that only defuses the current stage,” he said.