RAMALLAH // Leaders of the two main Palestinian factions yesterday moved a step closer to mending a rift that has divided their people and hindered international ties for almost six years.
President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, and Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, held four hours of talks early yesterday in Cairo.
They agreed to a meeting between their factions in the Egyptian capital next week to finalise a timetable for implementing the reconciliation accord they signed in May 2011, said Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah's central committee.
This would represent a major diplomatic victory for Egypt and its president, Mohammed Morsi, who hosted this week's talks and was instrumental in brokering an end to the latest fighting between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip in November.
Mr Shaath called yesterday's talks a "pleasant, positive meeting" in which "they agreed there would be no change to what we agreed to".
The question is how and when to implement the accord's parameters, he said.
They include national elections to unite the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank, incorporating Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that Fatah controls, and coordinating security issues.
All hold compromises for both sides and their allies, partly explaining why their pact fizzled soon after it was signed.
The United States, a financial backer of Mr Abbas, and Israel objected to the agreement because they consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.
In an attempt last February to salvage the accord, Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal agreed in Doha to renew reconciliation and allow Mr Abbas to serve as prime minister over an interim government before elections.
But Hamas officials inside Gaza dismissed the accord, accusing Mr Meshaal of signing it without their consent.
Some in the Islamist group expressed optimism over yesterday's agreement in Cairo. Izzat Al Rishq, a member of Hamas's political bureau, called it a "very good and promising atmosphere".
Mr Shaath said members from both factions would hold another gathering later this month with Palestinian officials from other parties to support its implementation.
He said there were a number of encouraging factors for reconciliation, including Hamas and Fatah allowing each other's members to rally recently in the West Bank and Gaza. They also have released each other's prisoners as goodwill gestures.
Popular Palestinian pressure for reconciliation also rose because of Israel's war on Gaza in November last year, and Mr Abbas's successful bid to upgrade the Palestinian status at the United Nations that month to a non-observer state.
"All of these things - the attack on Gaza, the political victory in the UN, the belligerence of the Israeli [pro-settlement] right - have fostered this new climate," Mr Shaath said.
After Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, it prevented Fatah activities. In the West Bank, Mr Abbas's security forces have coordinated with Israel to arrest Hamas members.
Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said perhaps the most promising reason for reconciliation was that Gaza-based Hamas officials had fallen in line with the idea.
Mr Meshaal and fellow leaders in exile have had more tempestuous relations with those living in Gaza since the group dismantled its headquarters in Damascus in late 2011.
"Since Fatah was allowed to rally here this month, they have been silent," Prof Abusada said, referring to the Hamas officials.
"They know the Palestinian mood in Gaza is with the spirit of Fatah, with reconciliation and ending the political divide, and they don't want to be seen as the reason for blocking Hamas-Fatah reconciliation."
He added that Egyptian officials, especially Mr Morsi, had also become less constrained by domestic crises, allowing Cairo to shift diplomatic energy to healing Palestinian divisions.
The Egyptian leader, an Islamist with ideological ties to Hamas, has political and security incentives to stabilise Palestine and Gaza, which borders Egypt.
Mr Morsi met separately with Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal on Wednesday.
"It seems Morsi has been able to put an end in a decisive way internal issue in Egypt," Prof Abusada said. "He wants to build on a number of positive developments between Hamas and Fatah, starting with the violence between Israel and Hamas."
A senior Fatah figure said Mr Morsi appeared to have backed Mr Meshaal against his critics inside Gaza. Officials in Fatah, he added, felt encouraged by the Egyptian president's renewed interest in reconciliation.
"They [the Egyptians] are encouraging Mr Meshaal to stay on as head of Hamas," the official said, referring to the Islamist group's secret internal elections.
Mr Meshaal is backed by Egypt and Qatar, whose emir visited Gaza last year promising to spend about US$400 million (Dh1.47bn) to rebuild the war-ravaged territory.
& Hugh Naylor on