(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently visiting Qatar, is expected to hold talks with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal on a proposed Hamas-Fatah government and the release of kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, PA officials here said on Thursday.
According to the officials, Qatar's rulers are exerting heavy pressure on Abbas and Mashaal to patch up their differences and to pave the way for the establishment of a national unity government.
Qatar is trying to wiggle in on diplomatic action
"Qatar is now playing the role of mediator in the dispute between Fatah and Hamas," said one official. "They decided to step in after Egypt failed to resolve the dispute between the two sides."
Another PA official said Qatar had also taken upon itself the task of resolving the case of Shalit - again after the Egyptians failed to achieve progress on this issue.
"Qatar has summoned both President Abbas and Mashaal for talks aimed at ending the crisis between Fatah and Hamas and forming a unity government," the official said. "The leaders of Qatar are now trying to arrange a meeting between the two men and we believe that they will succeed."
Qatar is the only Arab country besides Syria that maintains good relations with Mashaal and other Hamas leaders living abroad. Ever since he was deported from Jordan in November 1999, Mashaal has divided his time between Syria and Qatar.
At one point, the Egyptians also maintained an informal relationship with Mashaal, who was invited to Cairo on several occasions for secret talks with General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. But relations deteriorated over the past few months, largely because of Mashaal's hard-line policies and opposition to the formation of a PA unity government.
Mashaal has also angered the Egyptians by rejecting their mediation efforts regarding Shalit.
The armed groups that are holding Shalit in the Gaza Strip are believed to be directly linked to Mashaal and other Hamas leaders in Syria and Lebanon.
Earlier this week, Suleiman reportedly sent a strongly worded letter to Mashaal, accusing him of scuttling efforts to release Shalit in exchange for several hundred Palestinians held in Israeli jails. The letter also warned that Israel was planning a large military operation in the Gaza Strip if the efforts failed.
A report in the PA-funded daily Al-Ayyam said Thursday that Egypt had frozen its mediation efforts and that Qatar was now seeking to assume the role.
On Monday, Abbas told a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah that efforts to release Shalit had reached a dead end because of Mashaal's refusal to accept Egyptian mediation initiatives.
Sources close to Abbas reiterated on Thursday that the only way to resolve the current crisis in the PA was to dismiss the government and parliament and call early elections. They said Abbas would not hesitate to do this if Hamas persisted in its position regarding the political agenda of the proposed unity government.
"President Abbas is seriously considering firing the government and dismissing the parliament if the talks between Hamas and Fatah over the formation of a unity government fail," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former PA minister and a member of the PLO Executive Committee.
Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said Hamas needed to meet three conditions for the establishment of a unity government: honor the agreement that was reached between Abbas and Haniyeh two weeks ago and abide by all agreements that were signed between the PLO and Israel and the "national reconciliation" document drafted by Palestinian prisoners earlier this year.
In response, Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said calling early elections would further escalate tensions among the Palestinians because it would be seen as an attempt to stage a coup against a democratically elected government.
"Dissolving the parliament and holding new elections is not the solution to the impasse," he said. "Such a move would be directed against the will of the Palestinians."
Ahmed Bahar, acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the leaders of Hamas, said Abbas did not have the authority to dismiss an elected parliament. "The Palestinian Basic Law does not give anyone the right to take such a decision," he said. "This is an elected parliament that has its own sovereignty."
Meanwhile, hundreds of PA policemen demonstrated in the Gaza Strip on Thursday to protest the PA's failure to pay them their full salaries. The policemen blocked several main roads and went on a shooting spree, shouting slogans against the Hamas-led government.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator, said the protests were politically motivated and were part of Fatah's attempts to undermine the government. "The bullets that the policemen fired into the air today are enough to pay the salaries of several civil servants for a month," he said.
He predicted that Hamas and Fatah would eventually overcome their differences and reach agreement on the political program of a unity government.