- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

CAIRO (AP) - Egypt has dispatched two of its top officials to convince the Americans and the Europeans to accept a weaker commitment by the militant Hamas group to peace with Israel for the sake of forging a united Palestinian government, officials said Monday.

Hamas and the more moderate Fatah group have been trying for nearly a week to reconcile and form a national unity government, but have been wrangling over the language of how to address past Palestinian agreements with Israel. The formation of a unity government is key to moving ahead with reconstruction in Gaza after Israel’s recent offensive there.

Egypt has been mediating the talks, which have hinged on whether Hamas has to “commit” itself to past PLO agreements with Israel or if it could just “respect” them. The language is sensitive because Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction, is wary of wording that could convey an implicit recognition of Israel.

Egyptian officials and Fatah’s leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have repeatedly said that any new Palestinian government should accept previous peace agreements with Israel and Arab peace efforts with the Jewish state.

But Egypt’s decision to dispatch Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to Brussels and the country’s powerful intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to Washington indicates officials have had little success convincing Hamas to change its stance.

“Omar Suleiman and Aboul Gheit were sent to convince the Americans and the Europeans that a softer language in the political program might do,” said one Egyptian official.

A Palestinian official participating in the reconciliation talks in Cairo said, “Egypt has exhausted all its efforts and that is the only attempt left.”

The officials said Egypt is suggesting to the U.S. and the Europeans that they accept that Hamas “respect” the PLO past agreements rather than “commit” itself to them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Aboul Gheit held talks in Brussels on Monday with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel, according to Egypt’s official news agency. He met with Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign and security affairs chief, on Sunday.

“I found full agreement with the Europeans on the issue of the peace process and the Palestinian national reconciliation,” Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying.

Suleiman left for Washington on Sunday, said an Egyptian official.

The reconciliation talks are aimed at ending divisions going back to Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, which left Fatah in charge only of the West Bank. Previous unity accords have collapsed in mistrust and infighting, but this time both sides appear to have a strong incentive to reach an accord.

Hamas is under pressure to mend fences with Fatah to help end the devastating blockade of Gaza imposed by Egypt and Israel and obtain foreign funding to rebuild Gaza.

Fatah and Abbas, whose popularity took a beating due to his perceived lack of decisiveness during the Gaza war, need to find a way to blunt the challenges from Hamas.

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