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Palestinian unity talks face low expectations
GAZA (Reuters) - Divided over policy toward Israel and control of Gaza reconstruction aid, rival Palestinian factions face tough obstacles in unity talks due to open in Cairo on Tuesday.
On the eve of the negotiations, slated to last 10 days, officials loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and the Hamas Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip were united in a singular message: chances for success are slim.
Five committees were set to tackle issues at the heart of Palestinian reconciliation: formation of a unity government and restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to include Hamas, now a political and military powerhouse.
Palestinian political analysts said Hamas agreed to the talks to try to overcome its isolation by the West over the group's refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.
Western-backed Abbas, the analysts said, was seeking to minimize inter-factional friction, aware Fatah could be weakened if peace talks with Israel went nowhere under what appears likely to be a new right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We must reach an agreement to form a government of reconciliation that will abide by the obligations of the PLO," Abbas told reporters on Sunday.
He was referring to the organization's interim peace agreements that envisage the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, a blueprint that Netanyahu has not accepted publicly.
Hamas opposes the U.S.-backed peace process, offering instead a long-term truce with Israel that falls short of recognition of the Jewish state.
Izaat al-Rishq, who heads the Hamas negotiating team, said agreement on the government had to be accompanied by progress on all other tracks.
"We will start discussions tomorrow about if the government would be one of national unity composed of technocrats, and the names of possible prime ministers, but all the other committees have to finish their work as well," Rishq said.
A delegation of Hamas officials arrived in Cairo from Damascus on Saturday and was waiting for the rest of the team to cross into Egypt from Gaza, Rishq said.
In the short-term, a unity government could be crucial to an effective reconstruction program in the Gaza Strip, where Israel launched a devastating 22-day offensive in December with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.
At an Egyptian-hosted conference last month, international donors pledged $4.48 billion to help rebuild in the Gaza Strip.
Donors differ over how to deliver the aid while Hamas continues to govern in the Gaza Strip, territory it seized from Fatah in fighting in 2007. Both Abbas's Palestinian Authority and Hamas want to control the funds.
"The sooner (a unity) government is formed, the faster the reconstruction will be realized," Abbas said, referring to an administration of non-political technocrats which Fatah hopes can bypass the West's boycott of Hamas.
But Hamas official Ayman Taha said: "Gaza reconstruction is important but we are not required in return to cede our principles or recognize Israel, because that will never happen."
Bassem Ezbeidi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said Hamas and Fatah had to bend for unity talks to succeed.
But he added: "I don't think that both sides are ready to offer these compromises to reach an agreement."
Another sticking point is the inclusion of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group in the PLO, a marriage of conflicting ideologies -- one that advocates Israel's destruction and the other, backed by Fatah, that calls for co-existence.
"The gap is huge between the two sides. It would be extremely difficult to reach an agreement by the end of this month," said one PLO official who will be a negotiator at the Cairo talks.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah)
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