On Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dispatched two envoys to Syria for talks with Mashaal on ways of finding a solution to the case of kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit, senior PA officials here said.
Relations between the two have been strained ever since the Hamas leader accused Abbas of conspiring with the US and Israel to bring down the Hamas government. Israel holds Mashaal directly responsible for the abduction of Shalit.
A PA official told The Jerusalem Post
that Abbas and the PLO executive committee, a key decision-making body, decided over the weekend to negotiate with Mashaal after reaching the conclusion that Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip had little influence, if any, over the kidnappers.
"It's clear that Mashaal and his men in Syria and Lebanon are calling the shots," he said. "They have a great impact on the armed wing of Hamas, Izaddin al-Kassam, whose members are holding the soldier somewhere in the southern Gaza Strip."
The two emissaries, who are expected to begin their mission in Damascus on Monday, are Taysir Khaled, member of the PLO executive committee and a leader of the Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Abdullah Hourani, a widely-respected former PLO official.
Another PA official said Hamas had apparently softened its position over the past few days and was now interested in ending the crisis as soon as possible. He added that the ongoing IDF military operations in the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of dozens of Palestinians and caused massive destruction to infrastructure, have led many Hamas leaders to display flexibility with regards to the case of Shalit.
The official did not rule out the possibility that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's call over the weekend for a cease-fire had been coordinated with Mashaal. "I don't think that Haniyeh could have issued such a call without the approval of Mashaal and other hard-line Hamas leaders abroad," he said. "Moreover, the fact that Mashaal agreed to meet the representatives of Abbas in Damascus is a good sign and shows that the man wants to talk business."
Abbas returned to Ramallah on Saturday after spending the past two weeks in the Gaza Strip trying to resolve the crisis and secure the release of Shalit. On Sunday he met in his office with US Consul General in Jerusalem Jake Walles and briefed him on the outcome of his efforts to end the crisis and humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.
Ever since the crisis began, Egyptian diplomats and security officials have been holding round the clock talks with Hamas leaders and activists in the Gaza Strip in an attempt to persuade them to release Shalit. The Egyptian team is headed by Ashraf Akel, the Egyptian ambassador to the PA and includes two top officials who report directly to Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman.
Sources in Gaza City said most of the discussions are being held at the ambassador's residence or at secret locations because of Hamas's fear that Israel might try to target its representatives.
An Egyptian diplomat said on Sunday that negotiations to reach an agreement over the release of Shalit had never stopped and that he and his colleagues are in daily touch with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. Asked if any progress had been achieved, he said: "As long as we are talking, there is room for hope. We believe that the crisis could be resolved peacefully."
The diplomat said so far none of the mediators had been allowed to visit Shalit He also denied rumors that the Egyptians were negotiating directly with the kidnappers.
The Egyptian government, he added, was also in touch with Mashaal and other Arab governments in an attempt to prevent a further escalation. "President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi leaders have been talking to Syrian officials, including President Bashar Assad, about the need to end the crisis quickly," he said. "I believe this week we will see some kind of a breakthrough, although one has to be very cautious."