|Egypt has tried for months to mediate an agreement between Hamas and Fatah [AFP]
High-level officials from Hamas and Fatah have launched the latest of several efforts to restart stalled talks between the two Palestinian factions with a "friendly" meeting in the Syrian capital.
Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, hosted Fatah representative Azzam al-Ahmad at his office in Damascus on Friday. The two men said their groups would "hold a meeting shortly" to outline a deal, and then travel to Cairo "to sign a reconciliation agreement".
"An agreement was reached for a course and the steps to be taken toward reconciliation," the two men said in a joint statement.
Hamas and Fatah have been estranged for years, and differences sharpened in 2006, when Hamas won elections that would have given it control of the Palestinian legislature. Their split was finalised in 2007, after a year of infighting, when Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip.
Egypt has tried for months to broker an agreement, but talks have repeatedly broken down, most recently in October.
The latest round of talks came after Meshaal met Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, in Saudi Arabia earlier this month.
Keeping the talks alive
The meeting on Friday was a bid for Palestinian unity ahead of an important milestone for the Israeli-Palestinian talks that tentatively resumed in Washington earlier this month: Israel's ten-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank is due to expire on Sunday.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has already said that talks will collapse if construction resumes, and he reiterated that threat in an interview aired on Palestine TV on Saturday.
"The basic principle is that the extension is in place so long as we're negotiating," Abbas said. "There has to be an extension."
The White House has urged Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to extend the freeze; as has the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
"The Quartet noted that the commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation," the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, held a 25-minute meeting with Abbas in New York on Friday. State department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters it was part of an "ongoing effort" to keep the talks alive.
The US wants Netanyahu to extend the freeze, but it has also urged Abbas to abandon his threat to back out of negotiations.
"It is a pretty intense set of negotiations going on right now with the Israelis and the Palestinians," Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said. "We know that time is short. This is an important issue."
Netanyahu has said publicly that he does not plan to extend the freeze.