Palestinian leader downplays fears over Hamas deal

Posted April 28, 2011, at 9:58 p.m.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The moderate Palestinian president played down concerns that his emerging alliance with the militant Hamas will undermine peace negotiations with Israel, insisting Thursday that he will retain control over foreign policy and remain committed to resolving the conflict.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ pro-Western Fatah Party and the rival Hamas said Wednesday they had reached the outlines of a deal to end a 4-year-old rift that has left the Palestinians with two rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel and the international community gave a cool reception to the reconciliation plan, which would make Hamas a partner in a unity government.

Abbas said if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him and asked to resume peace talks, “I would do so immediately,” as long as Israel fulfilled his demand to stop all construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.

Despite his pledges, the unity plan reflects Abbas’ dissatisfaction with U.S.-backed peace efforts, which broke down in September, just three weeks after their launch when an Israeli settlement construction freeze expired.

Abbas says there is no point in talking peace while Israel builds homes on occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians, and he has made no secret about his unhappiness with Washington’s inability to halt settlement activity. Israel counters that the settlement issue should be discussed in negotiations instead of being made a precondition.

The division between Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Iranian-backed Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has been a major obstacle to the Palestinian goal of establishing an independent state in the two areas.

The new plan calls for the factions to form a caretaker government to prepare the way for presidential and legislative elections next year. But the involvement of Hamas, a group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, has raised speculation that Abbas has given up on U.S.-led peace efforts with Israel.

Speaking in the city of Ramallah, his West Bank headquarters, Abbas tried to ease such concerns. He said the unity government’s duties would be limited to elections and helping to rebuild the Gaza Strip after a devastating war with Israel two years ago. Relations with Israel would be handled by Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization.

“Politics is for the PLO and its chairman, which is me, and the government will work according to my policy,” Abbas said during a meeting with Israeli peace activists.

He stressed that there would be no Hamas representatives in the new government.

“These people will be independent, technocrats, not affiliated with any factions, neither Fatah nor Hamas,” he said.

In another gesture to Israel, he also signaled there would be no release of Hamas prisoners being held on weapons charges.

The unity plan appears to be influenced by the unrest and calls for freedom sweeping through the Mideast. The Palestinian rift is deeply unpopular with the public, and both the West Bank and Gaza have experienced street protests recently with youths urging the sides to reconcile. Hamas, in particular, has been jolted by the mass demonstrations in Syria, which hosts the headquarters and exiled leadership of the militant group.

 

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