Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday asked Hamas to form the next Palestinian government, but demanded that the Islamic militants recognize existing peace deals and fall in line with his moderate policies, including negotiations with Israel, as the "sole ... strategic choice" of the Palestinians.
Abbas made the demands in a speech to the new Hamas-dominated parliament, after legislators were sworn in by collective oath. Hamas controls 74 of 132 seats, but Abbas retains considerable powers as Palestinian Authority president, controlling foreign affairs, security and peace negotiations.
Hamas quickly rebuffed Abbas, saying it would not negotiate with Israel. However, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' choice for prime minister, said the group is not seeking confrontation and will try to work out a compromise with Abbas. Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction, opposes peace negotiations and has said it is not moderating its ways, despite international pressure and threats of tough Israeli sanctions, such as a blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has not yet decided whether he'd fire a Hamas prime minister who rejects his policies, Abbas aides have said.
Israeli government officials declined comment yesterday.
Israel considered yesterday's swearing-in ceremony as a turning point, after which it will drastically scale back ties with the Palestinian Authority. Israel's Cabinet is to vote today on sanctions against the Palestinians, including sealing Gaza, cutting off Gaza from the West Bank and keeping out thousands of Palestinian workers.
Yesterday's parliamentary session was held simultaneously in the West Bank city of Ramallah and in Gaza City, because of Israeli travel bans. Legislators were hooked up by video conference.
In Gaza, some 2,000 diplomats and other VIPs gathered in a government complex to view the parliamentary session, along with about 100 women from the Hamas Women's Union, their faces covered by veils.
In Ramallah, Hamas lawmakers entered the main hall in Abbas' headquarters in a group, one carrying a picture of jailed lawmaker Hassan Yousef. The group's female lawmakers covered their heads in traditional Muslim fashion.
Abbas said in his opening speech that a new reality has been created by the Hamas victory in last month's parliament election and the defeat of his Fatah Party.
"Therefore, it [Hamas] will be asked to form the new government," Abbas said. "On my part, you will find all the cooperation and encouragement you need, because our national interest is our first and final goal, and is above any individual faction."
Abbas asked Hamas to put together the government as quickly as possible, and to name its candidate for prime minister. Hamas said its choice is the group's pragmatic Gaza leader, Haniyeh, who in the past served as a liaison with the Palestinian Authority. However, no formal announcement has been made.
Abbas, who was elected separately last year on a platform of non-violence and continued peace negotiations, warned the militants they must recognize the interim autonomy agreements with Israel, known as the Oslo Accords.
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