- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

12:40 p.m.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia brought the two main Palestinian leaders to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, today to try to end their bloody conflict and complete a power-sharing agreement on a coalition government.

Before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas left for the talks with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, he warned that failure in Mecca “would mean the deterioration of the internal situation and igniting civil war,” the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted him as saying. “The word ‘failure’ is forbidden.”

Mr. Mashaal and Mr. Abbas arrived in Jidda, where they were due to meet King Abdullah II, Crown Prince Sultan and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. The city is less than an hour’s drive from Mecca.

The presence of the king and princes showed the kingdom’s determination to repair the rift between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah and Mr. Mashaal’s Hamas. Four days of gun battles between the two parties killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 200 others until a cease-fire took hold Sunday evening.

Even as Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas left the Gaza Strip for the talks today, Hamas and Fatah security officials fired at each other for 10 minutes at the Gaza-Egypt crossing terminal. No injuries were reported.

Mr. Haniyeh told reporters that his Hamas delegation was determined to reach agreement.

“Nobody wants the battling to continue,” he said after crossing into Egypt. “The only beneficiary is Israel.”

In recent months, Egypt, Syria and Qatar have all tried and failed to end the violent power struggle.

The Saudis pointedly are convening the talks in a guest palace overlooking the Kaaba, the black-draped cubic shrine toward which all Muslims turn when they pray.

Abdullah made clear that he hoped the setting would have an influence when he issued a statement to the Palestinian community in Saudi Arabia.

“I hope that the Palestinian brothers hear your demand and that they will not leave the sacred land without a commitment before God to stop fighting and bloodshed,” the king said.

Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah Cabinet minister who met Mr. Mashaal last week, told Israel’s Army Radio that Fatah and Hamas had overcome almost all obstacles to forming a coalition government during talks in recent weeks.

“Hamas is willing to sign an agreement … that the [new] government respect all the agreements that the PLO signed with Israel,” Mr. Fares said.

However, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mr. Mashaal’s deputy, was more cautious when he spoke shortly before leaving Damascus, Syria, for the talks.

“The disagreements on forming a national unity government … have become narrower,” Mr. Marzouk said, “but we don’t know whether an agreement will be reached or not.”

The sides have been deadlocked since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and took control of the Cabinet and legislature. The West promptly imposed a financial blockade on the Palestinian government because of Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel and previous agreements signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

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