Intensive talks between Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and PA President Mahmoud Abbas of the once-dominant Fatah faction brought the two sides close to bridging their differences over the recognition of Israel. But initial reports of a breakthrough quickly dissipated when Hamas, whose charter pledges Israel's destruction, denied any implicit recognition was on the table. The effort to forge a common position on the so-called "prisoners letter," which among other things recognizes Israel's right to exist in its pre-1967 borders, comes as Israeli forces massed on the Gaza border threatening an invasion.
Media outlets differed on the progress made, with al-Jazeera suggesting a deal was imminent, while other outlets portrayed both sides as having second thoughts (BBC). The New York Times quoted a senior Abbas advisor, Saeb Erekat, saying "The agreement is not finished yet. We have a difficult situation on our hands in Gaza and it's the wrong time to conclude this document."
Reports of the agreement came after members of Hamas' military wing launched a cross-border raid on June 25 (CSMonitor), killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing one. The kidnapping created a huge political headache for Abbas and Haniyeh by raising the specter of Israeli retaliation and the risk of broader violence (BBC). The attack was widely believed to have been ordered by Khalid Meshal, the head of Hamas' political wing in exile in Damascus, and turned out as much of a burden as a bargaining chip for Haniyeh. Some commentators said it also reflected a growing split between internal and external Hamas leaders. "The military wing [of Hamas] has placed a bomb in [Haniyeh's] hands, almost certainly without having consulted him beforehand," write Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in this Haaretz analysis.
The growing split is between the hard-line leadership of Hamas—Meshal in Damascus and Ahmed Jabari, leader of the movement's military wing in Gaza—and the elected leaders of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, who are seen as more moderate. International mediators working to secure the release of the Israeli soldier blamed Meshal for refusing to release him (Haaretz). Haniyeh and Abbas—who have had more than their own share of differences—sought after the raid to limit the damage and find a diplomatic way out of the crisis.
The stakes could not be higher. Israel began massing forces along its southern border to prepare to retaliate (LAT) and Israeli President Ehud Olmert threatened a prolonged operation against Hamas leaders. Some experts say Olmert—the first Israeli head of state without substantive military experience—will feel pressure to respond to charges (WorldNetDaily) that his new government, elected in January, is weak on terrorism.
The worsening conflict has taken a harsh toll on both Israelis and Palestinians. Militants increased the number of Qassam rockets they fired into Israel over the last month, causing Israeli retaliations that killed more than 14 Palestinian civilians. An audio slideshow by Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe shows the suffering of civilians on both sides of the border.
The hardship looks likely to continue as both sides brace for more violence.
The Washington Post warns that if Hamas fails to choose politics over violence in this situation, it will not likely get another chance. The Daily Star calls for a fresh approach to the situation, to "ensure that future generations of Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace and prosperity, instead of perpetual conflict."