EU officials expressed doubt on Wednesday that talks between Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal would result in any concrete progress towards forming a unity government.
Abbas, who heads the Fatah movement, is to meet Meshaal in Cairo on Thursday for top-level talks aimed at cementing a reconciliation deal between the two rival Palestinian nationalist movements which was signed six months ago but has yet to be implemented.
But John Gatt-Rutter, the European Union’s acting representative to the Palestinian territories, played down expectations of any breakthrough in implementing the unity deal.
“I have very low expectations and there is a very low probability that it will lead to any agreement on a new government,” Gatt-Rutter told reporters in Jerusalem.
Fatah and Hamas, which respectively control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, signed a surprise agreement in May to end years of rivalry which called for the immediate formation of a caretaker government of independents who would govern until elections can be held at some point before May 2012.
But the deal has never been implemented, with the two parties at loggerheads over the composition of the government and who would serve as premier.
“I wouldn’t expect much progress right now,” Gatt-Rutter said, pointing out that the two factions were “very far apart” on the three main issues of forming a government, agreeing on a date for elections and reforming the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
“On all these three key issues, both sides are coming from extremely different positions,” he said, expressing doubt the rival factions were in a position to overcome these difficulties.
“The important thing is that the meeting is taking place,” he said, while acknowledging the summit could result in something unexpected.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of the Palestinians to surprise,” he said.
Asked if the EU would work with a government put together by Fatah and Hamas, which is blacklisted by the European bloc as a ‘terror organisation,’ Gatt-Rutter said it would have to conform to a clear set of criteria.
“Should a new government be formed we would only be able to engage with it if certain conditions are met,” he said, referring to international demands that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between the two sides.
“The other is that it be a non-political government.”
One of the main sticking points has been Abbas’s reported insistence on keeping his prime minister Salam Fayyad, a politically-independent former IMF official who is highly regarded abroad but whose candidacy has been repeatedly rejected by Hamas.
On Tuesday, a senior Hamas official said both sides had agreed to rule out Fayyad as a candidate and were discussing the criteria for selecting a new premier.
But the EU official neatly skirted the question of Fayyad being replaced, saying only: “We have a preference for continuity — for us, the key is continuity.”