Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' bumpy efforts to set up a government acceptable to the West suffered a new setback when the prime minister from the Islamic militant Hamas group said he would not lead a coalition that recognizes Israel.
Hamas has ruled alone since March, but this month he agreed to share power with Abbas' moderate Fatah Party in the hope of ending a crippling international aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority.
The Hamas-Fatah coalition deal sidestepped recognition of Israel. Instead, it said the government would seek to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which implies recognition. However, the US and Israel demanded a clear commitment from Hamas on the subject, and Abbas was forced to revisit the issue.
At the UN on Thursday, Abbas indicated a national unity government would recognize the Jewish state. It was not clear whether Abbas promised more than he could deliver in order to solicit international support, or whether he was trying to pressure Hamas.
Abbas and his aides were en route from New York to Cairo on Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Hamas leaders reacted swiftly.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told Muslim worshipers in Gaza on Friday that recognition of Israel was out of the question.
"I personally will not head any government that recognizes Israel," said Haniyeh, considered a leader of Hamas' more pragmatic wing.
He reiterated that Hamas was ready to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem -- areas Israel captured in 1967 -- and to honor a long-term truce with Israel.
"We support establishing a Palestinian state in the land of 1967 at this stage, but in return for a ceasefire, not recognition," he said.
Hamas officials left open the possibility of more negotiations, saying they wanted to hear from Abbas when he returned home.
Palestinians appeared to be conflicted over what they want their leaders to do. Recent opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority wants Hamas to stick to its refusal to recognize Israel, apparently as an expression of Palestinian pride, even at the price of economic hardship caused by the foreign aid boycott. Hamas would lose much of its popularity if it were to issue a statement of recognition, the polls indicate.
However, two-thirds of Palestinians also want Abbas to negotiate a peace deal with Israel.
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