Sunday, 17 December 2006

Abbas threatens election showdown

As violence between Fatah and Hamas escalates, the president insists he will order a new vote

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reacting to street battles and gunfights between supporters of his Fatah movement and the opposition Hamas that led to at least six deaths and scores of injuries in the last week, threatened Saturday to call early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Abbas was trying to seize the political initiative after Hamas leaders told a vast crowd in Gaza on Friday that the Palestinian president had launched "a war" against Hamas and against God.

"Since the people are the source of authority, we will return to them and let them say their word," Abbas told the sympathetic crowd, most of them Fatah supporters, during a 90-minute televised address Saturday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I decreed the formation of the government, and I can sack it whenever I want to."

Hamas leaders took the call for new elections seriously, denouncing it as "an attempted coup."

To his audience, Abbas appeared genuinely angry -- but his forceful tone belied the fact that he had little to offer Palestinian voters except to renew his threat to call elections, something he has done repeatedly in recent months.

Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs analyst for the Jerusalem Post, said a new ballot could well prove a disastrous gamble for Abbas, because Hamas was expected to win new parliamentary elections and might also challenge the Fatah leader for the presidency.

"Hamas is not afraid of these threats," Abu Toameh said in an interview. "Fatah is the same party which lost the last election because of the corruption of its officials and its refusal to allow the younger generation to enter the leadership. If there is an election anytime soon, Fatah is almost certain to lose again."

Abbas stopped short of setting a date for the election and left open the possibility of a unity government involving both Fatah and Hamas. Still, his vague formula was enough to spark renewed clashes in Gaza -- where pro-Hamas marchers took to the streets and at least 21 people were injured in gunfights, including one this morning involving the presidential guard -- and to win promises of support from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is scheduled to arrive in Ramallah on Monday.

Abbas was elected Palestinian president in January 2005, but the rival Hamas party won parliamentary elections -- and thus control of the government -- last January. The Palestinian Authority has been in political and economic crisis ever since. Most of the international community, led by the United States, Europe and Israel, imposed an economic boycott on the Hamas government when it refused to recognize Israel, honor past agreements or give up violence.

The ensuing economic squeeze has left the one-third of Palestinians who are employed by the government without salaries for months, pushing the private sector into severe recession. More than $600 million in tax revenues, equal to more than half the annual budget of the Palestinian Authority, has been frozen by Israel.

A recent online poll published by the daily Al-Quds newspaper suggested that support for Fatah has slumped badly since the last election. It predicted Hamas would win an early parliamentary election with 45.98 percent of the vote compared with 33.66 percent for Fatah. In the national vote in January, Hamas scored 44.45 percent and Fatah 41.43 percent.

Abbas has been engaged for months in fruitless talks with Hamas leaders over the formation of a nonpolitical or unity government whose appointment would end the international blockade. But Hamas leaders have refused to compromise, particularly on issues that require dealing with Israel. In June, Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid that triggered five months of Israeli army incursions in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

Three weeks ago, Abbas persuaded Hamas to stop firing rockets across the border at Israel, initiating a shaky cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip. But since then, there have been increasing clashes between the Palestinian factions. They culminated last week in the shooting deaths of three young sons of a Fatah intelligence officer and the killing of one of the bodyguards of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader. The latter attack was an apparent assassination attempt as Haniyeh returned to Gaza after the Israelis kept him from bringing $35 million in cash to help pay the government's bills.

"We are living through difficult and miserable times," Abbas said on Saturday. "To break the vicious circle and prevent our lives from deteriorating further and our cause from eroding, I have decided to call early presidential and legislative elections."

Hamas leaders said Abbas' proposal was "unconstitutional." Palestinian law allows the president to fire the prime minister, but is ambiguous on whether he can call early parliamentary elections. Parliament is elected every four years.

"If Abbas is tired of the situation, he should resign instead," Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters in Gaza. "There will be no early elections, God willing."

Israelis are fearful that increased support for Hamas could mean a return to Palestinian attacks across the border. Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the Israeli leader "respects" Abbas "and hopes that he will have the capability to assert his leadership over the Palestinian people, and to bring about a government that will comply with the international community's principles."

In Gaza, legislator Mohammed Dahlan, one of Abbas' closest confidants, hit back at accusations that he was behind the attempted shooting of Haniyeh late Thursday, and noted that "since Hamas' election victory in January, more than 300 Palestinians have been killed as a result of lawlessness and 15 Fatah members have been assassinated."

"Hamas' allegations are simply a means of masking its failures towards the Palestinian people," Dahlan said in a statement circulated to the media.

"This Hamas government has failed to demonstrate that it has a plan to build, but has aptly demonstrated that it has a plan to destroy. It is time for Hamas to stop acting as though it is in the opposition and start taking on the responsibilities of being the head of the government," his statement said.

Even though Abbas berated Hamas in unusually harsh language, accusing the group of practicing "unacceptable terror" against its opponents, he did not actually dismiss the government, dissolve parliament or set a date for new elections. That leaves open the option of a national unity government with both Hamas and Fatah -- which would still not recognize Israel and satisfy the international community.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, a former Fatah loyalist turned independent, told reporters in Ramallah that "an opportunity must be given to resume the dialogue and form a national unity government. ...

"President Abbas didn't set a date for holding early elections and kept the doors for dialogue opened," she said. "We should do our best to save the country from more bloodshed."

Latest developments in the internal Palestinian crisis

What happened: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday he will call early elections for both president and parliament, but did not set a date. Abbas, of the Fatah party, has failed to reach agreement on a unity government with Hamas, the majority party in parliament. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, refuses to modify his party's anti-Israel stance.

What's next: Aides say Abbas will meet with the Central Election Commission within a week to discuss preparations for elections, which would take place three months after he issues a presidential decree ordering elections. Under Palestinian law, the president has the power to dismiss the prime minister or call a state of emergency, which in effect would dissolve parliament.

Possible presidential candidates

Mahmoud Abbas, 71: Incumbent president from Fatah, elected overwhelmingly in 2005 to succeed the late Yasser Arafat. A pragmatist who opposes violence, Abbas has called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After Hamas unseated Fatah in January parliamentary elections, he failed to win back disaffected voters. He has said he would not run for re-election, but that was before he cut his own term short. September polls gave him 31 percent of the vote in a presidential race.

Marwan Barghouti, 47: Charismatic leader of Fatah's young guard, serving multiple life sentences in Israel on murder convictions related to Palestinian uprising. Supports the so-called two-state solution -- a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- but advocates using force to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Widely seen as the only Palestinian leader capable of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions.

Mustafa Barghouti, 52: Independent lawmaker who heads the Palestinian National Initiative, a small left-leaning grouping that favors a two-state solution. Ran for president against Abbas in 2005, receiving about 20 percent of the vote.

Mohammed Dahlan, 45: Fatah lawmaker widely considered to be the most powerful figure in the Gaza Strip, with little support in the West Bank. Former Palestinian security chief, has been involved in peace negotiations with Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew from time jailed in Israel. Has good contacts with Israel and the United States and is at odds with Hamas, having acted against the militant group harshly when security chief. Hamas accuses him of masterminding assassination attempt on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Ismail Haniyeh, 46: Current prime minister and senior Hamas leader, considered the most popular Palestinian politician after Abbas. In keeping with Hamas' line, he does not recognize Israel, says he will not renounce violence, and calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza in return for a 10-year truce.

Ahmed Qureia, 67: Former Palestinian prime minister from Fatah, commonly known as Abu Alaa. Key architect of 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel and led Palestinians in negotiations with Israel for years.

Associated Press

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