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Egypt puts off Palestinian talks

Khalil is a Times staff writer.

The Egyptian government indefinitely postponed reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, setting up a possible new leadership battle between the two sides.

The factional summit, originally scheduled to start Monday, was meant to resurrect the short-lived national unity government that collapsed in June 2007, leaving the militant group Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and Fatah ruling the West Bank.

Hamas officials told Egyptian negotiators that they would boycott the talks after failing to come to agreement with Fatah over the fate of several hundred Hamas supporters and politicians jailed in the West Bank.

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Hamas official Ahmed Youssef confirmed that the two sides had reached a stalemate over the prisoner release.

“There is still time to find a way to handle this,” said Youssef, a senior advisor to former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in Gaza.

A statement published by Egypt’s MENA news agency said the talks would be postponed “until the necessary and proper conditions are achieved to secure [their] success.”

The setback increases the likelihood of a showdown early next year over Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas’ legitimacy as Palestinian Authority president. Abbas’ term expires in January, but he is widely expected to unilaterally extend his presidency.

Hamas says it will oppose any extension and challenge Abbas’ authority.

The militant group, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, has threatened to declare Aziz Dweik, the head of the Palestinian parliament, to be the legitimate president of the Palestinian Authority. Dweik is among the jailed politicians whose release Hamas is demanding; he was arrested after the capture of an Israeli soldier in June 2006.

With Dweik in jail, Hamas could declare his deputy, Ahmad Bahar, as the true Palestinian Authority president. Bahar is in Gaza.

The Cairo summit was meant to head off that confrontation by securing Hamas’ approval for an extension of Abbas’ term in exchange for a new power-sharing agreement between the two sides.

A complete collapse of the Cairo talks would set Fatah and Hamas on a collision course in January.

Youssef, the Hamas official, said there was still hope of an agreement -- provided that Abbas agrees to release Dweik and hundreds of other Hamas prisoners in the West Bank.

“Maybe next month we’ll be able to sit and talk and avoid any controversy,” he said.

The two sides traded accusations Saturday night, each blaming the other for the stalemate.

“By closing the door to the dialogue, Hamas is serving Israeli interest and harming the Palestinian cause,” said Nimr Hammad, an advisor to Abbas.

Analysts predict potentially violent repercussions if Fatah and Hamas fail to settle their differences before Abbas’ term ends Jan. 9.

Hani Masri, a prominent Palestinian columnist, envisions each side cracking down on the other’s supporters and a possible increase in guerrilla violence.

“If there’s no agreement, then we move straight into a crisis,” Masri said. “The arrests on both sides will increase. You may see assassinations.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah and Rushi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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