World and Nation

Palestinian Rivals Announce Steps to Healing Rift

Leaders of the rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah declared Thursday a “historic day” at the conclusion of a meeting here aimed at healing a 20-month schism.

The long-awaited Cairo talks added another twist to an already complex political situation as President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy arrived in Israel for discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

At a joint news conference in the Egyptian capital, Ahmed Qurei of Fatah and Moussa Abu Marzouk of Hamas announced the establishment of committees to find formulas for a Palestinian unity government and new elections, among other things. The committees aim to finish their work by the end of March.

Given the bitter divisions between Fatah and Hamas, it remained unclear what kind of unity government might emerge, and whether it would receive international acceptance if it was formed.

Still, representatives of the parties in Cairo said there seemed to be political will on both sides to resolve their differences.

The reconciliation talks, held under Egyptian auspices, were the first since Hamas, the Islamic militant group, took control of Gaza in June 2007, routing the Palestinian Authority forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of the mainstream, secularist Fatah. Hamas took over after a brief but brutal factional war in Gaza in which scores of Palestinians were killed.

The U.S. envoy, George J. Mitchell, is on his second trip to the region in a month, part of “ongoing efforts” to “actively and aggressively” advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, U.S. officials said.

But Israeli politics were also in flux after elections this month, leaving the future of the peace process unclear.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister-designate and the leader of the conservative Likud Party, has been holding coalition talks with right-wing and religious parties as the prospect of a more centrist coalition has dimmed.

A narrow, hawkish government would be unlikely to subscribe to the same peacemaking principles as the Obama administration and the departing Israeli government, which favor a process based on establishing a Palestinian state.