Can the Saudis Stop a Palestinian Civil War?

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Suhaib Salem / Getty

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (R) talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal after their meeting in Jeddah Tuesday 06 February 2007.

Hoping to end the fratricidal killing on the streets of Gaza, Saudi Arabia has invited leaders of the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, to Islam's holiest city for talks aimed at creating a unity government. Such a government would not only end the chaotic fighting, but would also be aimed at ending the Western economic siege of the Palestinian territories. But as if the hostility on the streets of Gaza was not enough to cloud the prospects for success of Tuesday's talks in Mecca, outside pressures on the summit have begun to mount.

The first hitch came from the Israelis who, by late Monday, had still not opened Gaza's border with Egypt to allow the delegation of Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh through to catch their night flight to Mecca. Haniyeh was finally allowed to pass through, and he will be joining Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader who has lived in Damascus since the Israelis tried to poison him in Amman in 1997, in talks with President Mahmoud Abbas. Meshaal is considered to be a more radical voice within Hamas than Haniyeh.

Even absent last-minute obstacles erected by the Israelis, trust between the two Palestinian factions is running abysmally low. Privately, Palestinians close to Hamas were doubtful that a deal can be reached and a deadly civil war averted. One Fatah Central Committee member told TIME that Haniyeh and Meshaal are convinced the Bush Administration is putting pressure on Abbas not to strike an accord with Hamas. "The key to a unity government lies with Abbas going against the U.S., which he won't do," the official said. After the talks in Mecca, Abbas is due to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Palestinian leaders say that in pressing Abbas to take a more confrontational attitude towards Hamas, Washington is gravely overestimating the Palestinian president's power. "The Americans have the false impression that he controls his forces. He doesn't," says one senior member of Abbas's Fatah movement, who claims that it is fractured into dozens of gangs based on clan and patronage networks. The loyalty of these forces to Abbas is questionable, Fatah sources say. The Bush Administration has promised $86 million in aid to shore up Abbas's support, and Gaza sources say his fighters took delivery last week of six armored vehicles sent via Israel and Egypt, which Hamas fears will be used against them in Gaza street battles. Since December, over 80 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza clashes between fighters of the two movements.

The leaders of Fatah and Hamas have been deadlocked for months over a power-sharing agreement, and while they bickered, fighting raged between their militias. Until now, Hamas has refused calls by Fatah and the international community to recognize Israel's right to exist. Going into the Mecca meeting, Hamas appeared to be showing flexibility. "We have no choice but to reach an agreement," Haniyeh said, without specifying if his militants would accept Israel's existence. Saudi backing for a Palestinian "unity" government, especially one that is ready to deal with Israel, would help sell the accord to other Arab countries, notably Egypt and Jordan.

Rival Palestinian leaders know that the Mecca meeting may be the last chance for a lasting truce. In Gaza, armed gunmen from both militias have already carved up the city with roadblocks and sniper positions in anticipation of an all-out war if the Saudi peace initiative fails.