Amos Harel, Jack Khoury
June 22, 2009 - 12:00am

In a goodwill gesture to his political rivals Hamas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered his security forces to release all prisoners belonging to the Islamist organization before the renewal of inter-factional talks.

Representatives of Abbas' Fatah faction, which has been the dominant player in Palestinian politics since the inception of the Palestine Liberation Organization, will meet with Hamas officials later this week in an attempt to hammer out an agreement on national unity.

The chairman of the Fatah faction in parliament, Azzam al-Ahmed, told a number of Palestinian media outlets that the Hamas prisoners slated for release include those who were arrested for alleged security violations.

Egyptian sources said Sunday that the reason Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Egypt over the weekend was to hear about Cairo's plan to advance a broader deal for a cease-fire with the Gaza Strip and a rapprochement between the Palestinian factions.

The sources added that following President Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world in Cairo two weeks ago, a decision was made in Cairo to step up pressure on the Palestinians so they would understand that without domestic reconciliation, there can be no progress in the peace process.

Barak told reporters in Cairo on Sunday meeting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that multilateral regional talks would be better for Israel than bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians toward a peace accord.

Israel is the "only one that can give, the Palestinians are the underdog and the talks are asymmetrical," Barak said.

But in regional talks, the defense minister stressed, it becomes clear that Israel is the isolated party. He said topics could include the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism and economic projects.

"The Arab side has much to give in the form of confidence building measures and steps toward normalization," he said.

Barak also said that a recent policy speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dismissed by Egypt as flawed, was a major step forward.

In his first official policy address last week, Netanyahu endorsed - with
tough conditions - the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Cairo, however, has said the proposal falls short of the Palestinian state Arabs seek.

"[Netanyahu] made it clear that the end result, the goal of the whole
process is to have a situation where the two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli, are living side by side in two states in good neighborliness, peace and security," Barak told reporters.

"It is a really unique opportunity for the peace process because the common interest is so apparent regarding the struggle against hegemonic Iran, against radical terrorism, against proliferation of nuclear weapons," he said.

Barak described Netanyahu's comments on a Palestinian state as a "major step forward" by Israel in helping advance peace.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017