CAIRO: Top-level talks between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal got under way at a Cairo hotel on Thursday in a bid to resolve issues blocking implementation of a unity deal.
The two were seen entering a room to begin talks in their first meeting since May, when they signed a surprise reconciliation deal aimed at ending years of bitter rivalry which has since stalled.
Abbas and Meshaal were expected to hold face-to-face talks for "about two hours" after which they would be joined by members of their respective delegations, Damascus-based Hamas leader Izzat al-Rishq told AFP late on Wednesday.
Among the key issues on the agenda are adopting a unified Palestinian strategy, hammering out an interim government, reforming the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and agreeing on a date for elections.
After a summer of scepticism over prospects for a real rapprochement between Abbas’s secular Fatah movement and its Islamist rival Hamas, a new optimism has emerged in recent weeks.
"President Abbas intends to deploy all possible efforts to reach a global Palestinian agreement and reach an understanding on a common political vision for all the movements," senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed told AFP in Cairo on Wednesday.
Hamas officials expressed similar sentiments about the talks.
"We want this meeting to open a new page and a new hope for the Palestinian people," Hamas deputy head Moussa Abu Marzouk told AFP on arrival in the Egyptian capital.
If the talks are successful, there will be a follow-up meeting in December with all the Palestinian factions to work on the specifics of who would be part of the government as well as other issues, officials said this week.
Hamas and Fatah, which respectively control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have long been political rivals, but tensions spilled over into deadly violence in 2007 with Hamas forces eventually routing their Fatah rivals and taking control of the Gaza Strip.
They signed a surprise agreement in May which called for the immediate formation of an interim government to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.
But it has yet to be implemented with the two sides bickering over the composition of the caretaker government and, in particular, who will head it.
Rishq heaped criticism on the United States and the European Union for seeking to perpetuate the Palestinian division as a means of control.
Both Washington and Brussels have said they will not work with a government that includes Hamas unless the Islamists recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
"Unfortunately the Americans and Europeans have taken negative positions on the meeting between the brothers Meshaal and Abbas," Rishq said.
"This position is the result of their desire for the continuation of the Palestinian division so they can continue to impose their dictates on the Palestinian people."
On Wednesday, the EU’s acting representative to the Palestinian territories said he had "very low expectations" that the meeting would break the deadlock in implementing the unity deal.
"I wouldn’t expect much progress right now," John Gatt-Rutter told reporters in Jerusalem, pointing out that Hamas and Fatah were "very far apart" on forming a government, agreeing a date for elections and reforming the PLO.
"On all these three key issues, both sides are coming from extremely different positions," he said, expressing doubt they were ready to overcome their differences.