- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — In a palace overlooking Islam’s holiest site, rival Palestinian leaders vowed yesterday to work out a power-sharing agreement to avert a civil war, asking their followers to abide by a truce during the marathon talks crucial to the peace process with Israel.

“We will not leave this holy place until we have agreed on everything good, with God’s blessing,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at an opening ceremony for the talks, sitting alongside rival Khaled Mashaal, head of the militant group Hamas.

“I tell our people to expect good news, and I hope this [meeting] will not be mere words in the air,” Mr. Abbas said at the ceremony, which was aired live on television across the Middle East.

Mr. Mashaal turned to Mr. Abbas and said they both had to tell their supporters to respect a truce reached Sunday, to which Mr. Abbas nodded in agreement.

“We want to give a message to the nation, and the world, to create a positive atmosphere for these talks,” Mr. Mashaal said. “We came here to agree, and we have no other option but to agree.”

The talks were held in a palace overlooking the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine toward which all Muslims face when praying. Saudi television repeatedly moved from scenes of the ceremony to images of the Kaaba — reflecting Saudi hopes that the venue will press the sides to resolve their differences.

Both sides sounded optimistic last night. Nabil Amr, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas, said he hoped to reach a deal on a coalition government within 48 hours. “We have finished the general talks and exchanges of views. Now we have started discussions over forming the Cabinet and its political program,” he said.

“The atmosphere is positive. I expect to reach a deal on sharing power — we have no alternative but to reach a deal,” said Mohammed Nazal, of the Hamas delegation. The talks were to continue through the night.

Saudi Arabia wants the Palestinians to reach a deal on a coalition government to end months of bloodshed that have killed dozens of people and to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which the kingdom thinks is vital to reducing tensions across the Middle East.

In Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he thought the talks had a reasonable chance of producing a national unity government that would “give a semblance” of meeting international conditions for a restoration of aid to the Palestinian Authority.

“We have been working very closely” with the two sides through phone calls and other contacts, he said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. “What remains is the topping. … But would it last?”

Neither King Abdullah nor other Saudi officials participated in the two rounds of talks between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mashaal yesterday, but Abdullah hosted a lunch at which the two leaders sat on either side of him.

Abbas aides said they may need more direct intervention from Abdullah — a sign of how difficult the few final obstacles to a deal may be to overcome. “We asked him to intervene because he has the respect of the two parties,” Mr. Amr said.

• Staff writer David W. Jones contributed to this article.

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