updated 2/5/2007 6:31:40 PM ET 2007-02-05T23:31:40

For the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, a reconciliation meeting this week in Saudi Arabia may be a last chance to avoid civil war.

If Saudi prestige, money and discussions in Islam’s holy city of Mecca don’t produce a power-sharing agreement, it’s unlikely anything will, analysts said.

In recent months, Egypt, Syria and Qatar have tried in vain to end the bloody power struggle between the Islamic militant Hamas and the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “If this meeting fails, then no one will try to mediate again,” warned Palestinian analyst Ali Jerbawi.

The talks, set to begin Tuesday, will be held in a guest palace overlooking the Kaaba, the huge cubelike shrine toward which all Muslims pray. Abbas and his bitter rival, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, each will be accompanied by large delegations.

The negotiations follow the bloodiest round yet in months of Hamas-Fatah fighting in Gaza, with 29 killed over four days before a new truce took hold Sunday.

The clashes have deepened resentment and suspicion between the sides, making agreement on a coalition government seem more elusive than ever. But the fighting also served as a reminder that neither side can win by force without causing massive destruction, and that failure in Mecca could be followed by an even deadlier round of violence.

“Both parties, Fatah and Hamas, know that not having an agreement in this round of talks means catastrophe,” said Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah Cabinet minister who met with Mashaal last week on behalf of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.

Deadlock for a year
The sides have been deadlocked since Hamas won elections in January 2006 and took control of the Cabinet and legislature. Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately a year earlier, still wields considerable power.

Hamas and Fatah held talks last fall on forming a coalition that Abbas hoped would end the economic boycott the West imposed on the government after the victory by Hamas, which Israel, the U.S. and the European Union list as a terror group.

Talks have broken down repeatedly, and increasingly bloody battles have broken out in Gaza. The disputes focus on the proposed coalition platform and who would have control over security forces.

Ostensibly, the gaps are small — in the case of the program only a single word. Abbas has insisted Hamas promise to “commit” to previous PLO agreements, including interim peace deals with Israel. Hamas is only willing to say it “respects” such agreements.

The underlying problem appears to be deep mistrust and an unwillingness to share power.

Yet both sides might have a hard time saying no to the Saudis, particularly in a venue heavy with religious symbolism.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said Monday that the atmosphere might be tense at first because of the recent fighting, but he is heading to Mecca with a “sincere will” to reach a deal.

‘A critical juncture’
A key militant in Gaza, Kamal al-Neirab, warned that a failure of the talks “will be considered a decision to go to civil war.” Al-Neirab leads the Popular Resistance Committees, a small violent group that holds an Israeli soldier hostage and has shifted its allegiance between Hamas and Fatah.

“The Palestinian issue is at a critical juncture,” he told reporters Monday. “The meeting tomorrow either brings us to safe shore or it will be the beginning of a crushing war.”

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an Abbas aide, said the Saudi umbrella might make it easier for Hamas to moderate its views. “Otherwise, this last chance will be wasted,” he said.

In that case, Abbas would go ahead with early elections — a recipe for more fighting, since Hamas has said it would block a new vote as an attempted coup.

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