Analysis Meanwhile, Netanyahu revisits idea of unity government, fearing a narrow right-wing coalition will only alienate Washington.
Unity elusive on all sides of the border
RAMALLAH, West Bank // Everyone is talking, but little is being achieved. In Egypt, Palestinian factions are engaged in serious, but as yet unresolved discussions over national reconciliation, while reports from Israel suggest a national unity government there is also back on the cards, as Benjamin Netanyahu struggles to put together a coalition government. In Gaza, meanwhile, there has been no progress over a formal or semi-formal ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel. Crossings into the impoverished strip remain closed to all but humanitarian goods rendering reconstruction efforts impossible.
In Cairo, Palestinians are engaged in what appears to be very serious reconciliation talks to bring Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, to a modus vivendi. A first success came in the form of an agreement ratified yesterday not to use weapons in inter-factional disputes. However, Hamas is still demanding that the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the president, release what it says are hundreds of Hamas activists from West Bank prisons. There have been some prisoner releases, but the issue is a crucial one and could hold up an agreement.
Reports suggest that while positions on a political platform vis-à-vis Israel depend now on wording alone and that there is preliminary agreement on a unity government composed of independents, there is also still much distance to be travelled on reform of the PLO and control over security forces. On Friday, Mr Abbas, talking to reporters in Ramallah, conceded that negotiations "had encountered difficulties".
"It requires effort and genuine will in order to reach national reconciliation. We don't want to talk about obstacles, we hope the talks will succeed," Mr Abbas said. However, with Egypt pushing for a successful conclusion to talks by the end of March and public pressure on both parties not to be seen as an obstacle to national unity, it is likely that even if Hamas and Fatah do not resolve all their outstanding issues, an agreed unity government could at least fill out temporary term until new elections are held. Such time might be needed to convince the rank-and-file in both political factions that unity is possible and to resolve claims by victims of inter-factional violence.
Meanwhile, the man tasked with forming Israel's next government, Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the right wing Likud Party, does not appear closer to agreement with any potential coalition partner. Reports in Israel suggest that while the focus of Mr Netanyahu's efforts are on persuading far-right wing parties into the fold, coalition talks are bogged down as the parties to the right of Likud vie for the same positions in any new cabinet.
However, representatives of Likud and Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, and Israel's biggest party, have held back-channel meetings to re-examine the chances of a unity coalition. Mr Netanyahu is apparently concerned that a narrow right-wing coalition will put Israel on a collision course with Washington. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, made a point on her recent visit to stress that the US will pursue a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, something Mr Netanyahu has yet to be clearly committed to and something a narrow right-wing coalition would strain to accept.
Yoel Hasson, a senior Kadima lawmaker, said the party, "would be happy to renew unity talks" with Mr Netanyahu, but on condition any joint government set Ms Livni's goals as policy, which she has said included pursuing a two-state solution with Palestinians. According to reports, Kadima officials are seeking a power-sharing agreement with Likud that would see Ms Livni and Mr Netanyahu rotate as prime minister. It is suggested that Kadima would accept an unequal rotation, giving Mr Netanyahu more time in the top post.
Last month, Mr Netanyahu abandoned coalition talks with Kadima after a similar proposal. Mrs Clinton's visit and the difficult relations a narrow right-wing Israeli government is likely to have with Washington seem to have convinced Mr Netanyahu that such a coalition would not be stable. Mr Netanyahu has until April 3 to form a new government, by which time the situation on the Palestinian side might be clearer.
That may or may not affect Egyptian-mediated talks on a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. These appear to have been frozen even as international donors met in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt and committed large sums to the reconstruction of the battered Gaza Strip. Without a ceasefire agreement, crossings into Gaza are likely to remain closed to anything but humanitarian aid, rendering reconstruction efforts futile. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, has tried to tie in any deal for a ceasefire agreement to the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured on the border to Gaza in 2005.
Mr Olmert, one eye on a future political comeback, will greatly prize the release of Sgt Shalit. However, Hamas has rejected any deal for the soldier that does not include a substantial release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Mr Olmert's stance has also seen him come under domestic criticism from those who believe that a deal for Sgt Shalit could and should be struck soon. Mr Netanyahu is likely to want Mr Olmert to conclude any deal before he takes office to ensure that Gaza will remain quiet at least for the beginning of his premiership.
In a sign that Hamas is prepared to go some way to secure a ceasefire agreement sooner rather than later, the Islamist movement voiced rare criticism on Thursday of rocket fire from Gaza that continues sporadically. In a statement, Hamas said now was not the time for such attacks and that it would investigate who is behind recent rocket fire. Two rockets were fired across the Gaza border on Friday, but landed harmlessly in the Negev dessert.