January 20, 2009 - 1:00am

Egypt has proposed Feb. 22 as the date for the start of a dialogue between Palestinian groups, several of the groups said in reports published on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, which has been mediating between the groups, told reporters: "We will invite the Palestinian groups. We hope we will succeed in this in the third week or at the end of the third week of February."

The leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), in a statement quoted by the Egyptian state news agency MENA, said Egyptian mediator Omar Suleiman "emphasized the importance of preparing the climate for the comprehensive national dialogue on Feb. 22."

Bilal Kassem, an official of the small Palestine Liberation Front, told the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat: "Egypt will issue invitations to a comprehensive Palestinian national dialogue on Feb. 22."

The two reports gave few details but the dialogue is expected to take place in Egypt under the auspices of the Egyptian government, one of the few in the world which has working relationships with all the parties.

Ayman Taha, an official of the Islamist movement Hamas, told Reuters Feb. 22 was a date under discussion and not final.

"This is among the ideas under discussions and to which we will give some responses in due course," he added.

Egypt came close to organizing a Palestinian dialogue in November but the Islamist group Hamas pulled out a few days before it was due to begin, saying the rival Fatah group has failed to meet its demand that it free Hamas prisoners.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the European Union see Palestinian reconciliation as one of the keys to progress towards an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and towards a possible resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The main parties are Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who since June 2007 has controlled only the West Bank.

The two sides agree in principle on the idea of a national unity government for the Palestinian Authority, but they disagree on whether Abbas still has a mandate to govern and on whether armed struggle is still a legitimate strategy for dealing with Israel.

They also disagree on the terms for reopening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Abbas wants his forces to resume control there, but Hamas opposes that idea.

Turkey calls on Hamas to pick politics over armed struggle
Turkey's government, accused of siding with Hamas during Israel's Gaza offensive, has called on the Islamist group to use peaceful means, rather than armed struggle, to achieve its aims rather than armed struggle, its foreign minister said.

Turkey has come under criticism for the strong rhetoric it used against Israel during the offensive in the Gaza strip. Turkish opposition parties, ex-diplomats and columnists have accused the government of taking a pro-Hamas stance.

"Hamas should make a decision. Do they want to be an armed organization or a political movement?," Turkey Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told Milliyet and Radikal newspapers in an interview published on Tuesday.

"Our suggestion is that they work within the framework of the political system. The party supported by Hamas got 44 percent of the votes in the last elections. It is impossible to ignore this base," he said.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but secular country that historically has had good ties with Israel and the Arab world, played a role in helping broker an end to the offensive this month, particularly by lobbying Hamas to declare a unilateral ceasefire.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called Israel's operations, launched with the aim of ending Hamas's cross-border rocket attacks, "a crime against humanity", deploring what he saw as excessive force, and he suggested Israel be barred from
the United Nations.

His remarks shocked Israel and were interpreted by some political observers as a bid to shore up support ahead of local elections in March with an electorate deeply sympathetic to Palestinians.

"Babacan's approach and his carefully chosen words show that Ankara which is criticised of being pro-Hamas and even a speaker for Hamas, is now moving towards the centre," Fikret Bila, a prominent columnist said.

Turkish analysts say the government's stance during the Gaza conflict may have weakened its role as a mediator in the Middle East. Turkey led indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

"We criticised Israel's operations from the very first day. We received written and oral statements from worried Jewish organizations, especially in the United States. They told us anti-Semitism would gain momentum and Turkish-Israeli relations would suffer," Babacan said.

"We take these reactions into consideration. Turkish-Israeli relations may get harmed in the short term but I do not expect negative results in the medium and long term," he said.


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