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Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal failed on Sunday to resolve an increasingly bitter dispute and form a unity government.
But Abbas and Mashaal said the two sides "achieved major progress" during their meeting - the first since July 2005 - and hoped to continue talks on forming a coalition government within the next two weeks, according to a joint statement.
"There are still points of disagreement, but we will try to resolve them through a national dialogue until we form a national unity government," Mashaal said during a press conference with Abbas in Damascus.
The two sides stressed that recent Palestinian infighting, which has killed at least 62 people, was unacceptable, and pledged to exert efforts to avoid political friction.
"We stress that dialogue is the only language allowed for solving our differences. ... It is not normal to fight," Mashaal said.
The two met in Sunday night in the Syrian capital in what is seen as a victory for Syrian diplomatic efforts.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and senior government officials in Damascus played a significant role in persuading Abbas and Mashaal to hold the long-awaited summit, a top aide to Abbas told The Jerusalem Post.
Assad is clearly trying to improve his country's image in the West in light of allegations that he was behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and that he was supporting terror groups, especially in Iraq and Lebanon.
The meeting, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed due to differences between Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas over the distribution of cabinet portfolios in the proposed unity government. Under pressure from the Syrians, Hamas finally agreed to cede control over the Interior Ministry, which is formally responsible for the PA security forces, the official said.
According to the official, the Interior Ministry, which is currently headed by Hamas's Said Siam, will be handed over to an independent figure from the Gaza Strip. Siam has been under attack from Abbas and Fatah leaders for operating a new Hamas security force in the Gaza Strip.
"The Syrians have succeeded where the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Saudis and the Jordanians failed," he added. "Syria wants to prove to the Americans and Europeans that it can play a positive role in the Middle East."
While the meeting was underway, Fatah and Hamas officials expressed cautious optimism, noting that the two had yet to agree on the political platform of the unity government. They said the main dispute was over previous agreements signed between the PLO and Israel.
While Abbas has insisted that the government's platform mention the need to "abide" by all the agreements, Hamas is only prepared to state that it will "honor" the agreements without having to recognize Israel.
Earlier, Mashaal's deputy, Mussa Abu Marzouk, expressed hope that Abbas and Mashaal would also reach an agreement on ending the state of lawlessness and anarchy in the PA-controlled territories. "The problem is with all the gangs that are running wild in the occupied territories," he said, referring to various Fatah militias belonging to Abbas's Fatah party. "We hope the summit will create a positive atmosphere that will prevent Palestinian bloodshed."
Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri said his movement's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist was the main reason behind the failure of the unity government talks until now. "Abbas wants us to recognize the Zionist entity," he said. "But we swear that even if we are all killed, we will never change our ideology."
On the eve of the Abbas-Mashaal summit, Hamas announced that it would stop issuing public statements about kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The decision was apparently designed to avoid embarrassing Abbas and to allow the Egyptians to pursue their efforts to release the soldier away from the spotlights.
"Multiple statements about the soldier and an impending prisoner exchange [with Israel] could have a negative impact on the case," explained Hamas representative Osama Mazini.
He reiterated Hamas's position that Shalit would be released only in return for a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including all minors and women.
In Gaza City, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accused the US of seeking to overthrow the Hamas-led government. "The Americans want to foil our democratic experience and punish our people because of their free choice," he told reporters shortly before the Abbas-Mashaal summit began.
Haniyeh also accused the US of thwarting efforts to form a Palestinian unity government and driving the Palestinians toward civil war. "The Americans want to cover up for their failure in Iraq," he added. "They want us to drown in pools of blood and to forget about a possible victory."