- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

CAIRO (AP) - Egyptian-mediated talks between rival Palestinian factions broke down Thursday without a deal on a national unity government, in a major setback to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

The failure of talks between rivals Hamas and Fatah also could deepen the divisions among Arab countries ahead of a crucial summit later this month in Qatar that U.S.-allied Mideast heavyweights including Saudi Arabia had hoped would unite the fractured region.

Thursday’s failure to form a unity government came just two days after negotiations in Cairo between the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers and Israel over a prisoner swap ran aground.

The deadlock in both negotiating tracks raised questions about plans by the international community to rebuild parts of Gaza, devastated in Israel’s recent military offensive against Hamas. Gaza’s borders have been virtually sealed since Hamas seized the territory by force in June 2007, and international aid groups have said reconstruction of the war damage is impossible without open borders.

Israeli officials repeatedly have said the Gaza blockade would not be lifted until Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit is freed. Gaza militants captured Schalit in a cross-border raid in 2006, and Egypt had been negotiating a prisoner swap deal _ Schalit in exchange for 1,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

But no deal was reached by Tuesday’s deadline. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said efforts would continue, but there appeared to be no chance for a deal before he leaves office by the end of the month.

Olmert’s designated successor, hardline leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is unlikely to go further than Olmert in making concessions to Hamas, particularly if he brings hawkish parties into his coalition, as expected.

This week’s failures in both negotiating tracks will hamper efforts to reach a durable truce between Israel and Hamas, instead raising the likelihood of escalation along the Israel-Gaza border.

The breakdown also comes less than two weeks before the Arab League summit in Qatar that is expected to be overshadowed by inter-Arab conflicts, including a sharp division on how to deal the Palestinian feud.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki blamed the failure of the talks on Arab’s disunity. “It’s very difficult for the Palestinian reconciliation to succeed with the ongoing Arab conflicts, he said. Zaki was apparently referring to Syria’s and Iran’s support for Hamas.

Palestinian rivals were trying to agree on the terms of a joint coalition for an interim unity government that would set the stage for elections by January.

The key sticking point was the program of the new government which should have outlined to what extent Hamas would abide by past accords with Israel.

Negotiators for Fatah, which rules the West Bank, said the new government must commit to the program of the PLO, which recognized Israel in 1993. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and only wants the new government to “respect” the PLO commitments. Earlier this week, Egyptian envoys sounded out U.S. and European diplomats about whether they would be willing to accept something less than a commitment to the PLO agreements.

Other hurdles were an agreement on rebuilding the Palestinian forces and enacting a new election law.

After the break-up Thursday, Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum reiterated that his group will not agree to “commit” to the accords or recognize Israel.

Samir Ghosheh, a negotiator for a tiny PLO faction, said Egyptian mediators told the Palestinian representatives on Thursday to pack their bags. The Egyptian hosts did not set a date for a new round, he said. Negotiations had begun last week.

“I don’t think there will be a resumption of talks unless there are clear indications that the problems will be solved,” said Ghosheh.

However, Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmed said the talks will continue after the Arab summit on March 30.

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