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Palestinian Peace Deal Faces Test in Upcoming Talks

Last week the leaders of the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed to end factional fighting and form a unity government. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, the international community has largely adopted a wait and see attitude towards the Hamas-Fatah deal - but that could change soon when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Jubilant Palestinians poured into the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip when news of the agreement reached in Mecca was announced. Firing automatic weapons in the air they celebrated an end to fighting that had killed more than 100 Palestinians since December.

Hamas and Fatah had been feuding for months in a bitter power struggle that erupted after Hamas won legislative elections last year, and took control of the Palestinian Authority.

In the days since the agreement was signed there has been speculation as to which faction gained the most in Mecca. Under the agreement, Hamas will lead the unity government - and will have a veto over who will become Interior Minister - responsible for overseeing Palestinian security forces. The agreement also does not pledge to recognize Israel - something international donors say is necessary if the new government wants normal relations and a resumption of donor aid.

Ali Jarbawi is a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Jarbawi says the Mecca talks were not about solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, or even about achieving a long-term solution to the Palestinian political crisis, but instead had a simpler goal; to end Palestinian fighting.

"I think that neither party, Hamas and Fatah, has won," he said. "I think it is an agreement to stop the internal fighting and I hope it will take, because this is the only way that internal fighting is going to stop."

Israeli officials have given the agreement a cautious welcome - saying it does not go far enough. Yossi Alpher, who edits, a web-based publication that examines the Arab-Israeli conflict, says Israelis also want to see an end to Palestinian fighting.

"There may be a few Israelis who feel that if Palestinians are attacking one another that this is somehow good for us," he said. " I think most of us feel that anarchy in the West Bank or in Gaza is bad for us, because it simply denies us even the possibility of finding a stable and relatively moderate partner with whom we can make deals with or get into a peace process. And also because it threatens bring the entire structure of the Palestinian Authority down into a collapse."

Alpher say if that were to happen Israel would be forced to intervene in the Palestinian territories to avert a humanitarian crisis.

Yossi Alpher also says many Israelis welcomed the Mecca talks because they reinvigorated Arab diplomatic efforts that could counter Iranian efforts to gain ascendancy in the Middle East.

"It seems fairly plain that this is part of a broader Saudi diplomatic and strategic move to assert, or reassert its leadership of the moderate Sunni Arab countries as part of its overall concern about Iranian incursions into the region - and in this specific case - Iranian incursions into the Levant [Lebanon], and in supporting and even arming and training Hamas," he said. "So at a certain level this is an anti-Iranian move led by a relatively moderate pro-Western Sunni country and that works to Israel's benefit. "

Yossi Alpher says it is too early to tell which Palestinian faction gained more from the Mecca talks, but he says Hamas has begun to moderate some of its more extreme positions, agreeing in Mecca for example to respect previous peace agreements between Israel and the Fatah-led PLO.

Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University agrees, saying Hamas is likely to prove a flexible partner in a unity government with Fatah when it comes to meeting some of the requirements of the international community.

"I think Hamas has come along way towards moderating its previous positions," he said. "Now, Hamas talks about a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders. So I think there is a chance that this government is going to work within the laid-down conditions set by the international community, but I am not sure they are going to acknowledge that. But in their program and work I think they are going to at least respect the international conditions."

A key test of that will likely come soon, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Abbas will try to convince Israel and the United States, as well as other members of the international community, that the new Palestinian government will be able to meet all three conditions for normal relations and a resumption of economic assistance - recognition of Israel, a renunciation of violence, and respect for previous peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.