By Alaa Shahine
CAIRO, March 10 (Reuters) - Rival Palestinian groups began crucial talks on Tuesday in Egypt to agree on the formation of a unity government that would prepare for presidential and legislative elections and oversee the reconstruction of Gaza.
Diplomats and analysts see the success of the Egyptian-sponsored talks as key to reuniting Palestinians after 21 months of schism between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the West Bank, where the Fatah group of President Mahmoud Abbas holds sway.
Fatah and Hamas, the largest two Palestinian groups, differ fundamentally on how to deal with Israel. Hamas believes in armed struggle, though it is willing to consider a truce, while Abbas says negotiations with the Jewish state are the way to go.
At the opening session of the talks Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman urged delegates from the Palestinian groups to reach quick solutions to their differences.
"I look forward to us finishing our work quickly and within a few days to celebrate our unity," Suleiman said in a televised speech. "We are meeting here to succeed," he added.
Palestinian groups agreed in Cairo on Feb. 26 to form five committees that would also tackle issues such as the composition of security agencies in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The participants in last month’s talks said the committees would finish their work before the end of March. A senior Hamas official, however, said at the time it would take more than a few days to agree on the government.
On Saturday Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he intended to resign by the end of March to pave the way for the formation of a unity cabinet. Abbas, who appointed Fayyad after Hamas routed Fatah in Gaza in June 2007, asked him to remain in office until results emerged from the talks in Cairo.
Suleiman said the most crucial task for the Palestinians was to form a government of non-partisan technocrats, echoing a demand by Western powers that consider Hamas a terrorist group and refuse to deal with its representatives.
The West had shunned a previous unity government headed by Hamas after the Islamist group won parliamentary elections in 2006. Many Arabs and Palestinians said Western powers were punishing the Palestinians for their democratic choice.
Suleiman said such a government would be able to "communicate with the world" in order to lift the Israeli-led blockade on the coastal strip, oversee reconstruction efforts and prepare for elections.
"I do not want to remind you of the consequences of, God forbid, failure," he said in the opening session, which was also attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
"We face a precious opportunity that may not be repeated," he added.