Newly empowered Egypt brokers Palestinian peace deal

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2011 

CAIRO — The Islamist group Hamas and the mainstream Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Wednesday that they've agreed to reconcile, in a surprise Egyptian-brokered accord that angered Israel and left U.S. officials struggling to maintain their influence over Mideast peace negotiations.

The power-sharing deal, which was hammered out in a series of secret meetings in Cairo, includes the formation of a national unity government and a timetable for a general election next year, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said.

Top leaders from both parties, which fought a bloody battle for control of Gaza four years ago, are expected in Cairo soon for the formal signing of the agreement, which, if successful, would end their rift and present a more cohesive Palestinian front in negotiations on ending the decades-old conflict with Israel.

"At this stage, we have the best weapon to face the occupation. This weapon is our national unity," Fatah negotiator Azzam al Ahmad told a news conference in Cairo, echoing remarks Abbas made from Moscow.

News of the rapprochement was met with wariness by the United States and hostility by Israel. Both countries consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The White House issued a statement saying that any new Palestinian leadership must "renounce violence, abide by past agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the concern more bluntly, demanding that Fatah make a choice: peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas.

"There cannot be peace with both, because Hamas strives to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly," Netanyahu said.

The announcement also was another sign that the string of revolts that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and threatens the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to have a profound impact beyond the countries where the revolts have taken place.

The toppling of Mubarak, whose regime cooperated with Israel in isolating Hamas-governed Gaza, opened the door for more neutral mediation, Hamas officials told Arabic-language TV channels. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the historic Islamist group that Mubarak relentlessly persecuted and that many now expect to become a pervasive, if not dominant, force in Egyptian politics.

The Egyptian intelligence service announced the accord in a statement distributed via the state news agency MENA. Egyptian intelligence officials arranged the talks between senior representatives from Fatah and Hamas.

"The new government in Egypt is more objective, more willing to listen to both sides, more willing to keep some distance from both sides," Marwan Bishara, a senior analyst for the satellite channel Al Jazeera, said in a broadcast Wednesday.

The unrest in Syria played a role in the agreement. Hamas' exiled political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, and the Islamic Jihad militant group's leader, Ramadan Shallah, live under the protection of Assad. Shallah, who reportedly will join the other groups at the Cairo ceremony, was added to the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists in 2006.

With Assad now facing a popular revolt that seeks to overthrow him, Hamas was forced back to the negotiating table for a Plan B, said a senior official in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly on the developments.

"You see what's happening in the region, specifically in Syria, which is very important for Hamas members," the Egyptian official said. "This is one of the main motivations for Hamas to accept the treaty and act in accordance with it."

Similar reconciliation deals have fallen through at the last minute, so Palestinians said their hopes for the Egyptian plan were tempered with skepticism. Even some officials involved in the talks acknowledged potential spoilers such as disagreements over how to divvy up responsibility for security in the Palestinian territories.

Hamas has ruled as the de facto government of Gaza since 2007, when unity talks collapsed and Palestinians fought a brief civil war in which Hamas seized power. Fatah, which is considered a more moderate and Western-friendly movement, still controls the West Bank.

There were only muted celebrations of the announcement in the Palestinian territories, where many residents took a wait-and-see approach.

"At the last minute before signing an agreement, they always spoil it with some silly obstacle," said Haider Moussa, 30, who lives in Gaza and has a security job in Ramallah. Moussa said he'd believe in the agreement only "when I feel it, when I see it implemented on the ground and I see results of the reconciliation."

(McClatchy special correspondents Sheera Frenkel in Tunisia and Ahmed Abu Hamda in Gaza contributed to this report.)

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