Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Unity plan `back to zero': Abbas

NO TO RECOGNITION The Palestinian president's efforts to create a national unity government faced a tough challenge in light of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel

AP AND AFP , JERUSALEM AND RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

Accusing the Islamic militant group Hamas of backtracking, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that his efforts to set up a national unity government that is acceptable to the West are "back to zero."

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said on Friday he would not lead a coalition that recognizes Israel, dealing a blow to Abbas' attempts to form a power-sharing government between his ousted Fatah group and Hamas.

On Saturday, Hamas officials suggested that Abbas had oversold the emerging coalition to the international community, portraying it as more conciliatory toward Israel than it was meant to be. Despite Abbas' pessimism, Hamas insisted a deal could still be struck.

Abbas is to meet with Hamas leaders in Gaza today.

"Abbas will travel to Gaza to meet Haniya tomorrow or after tomorrow to continue discussions on the national unity government," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The latest setback comes at a time of growing tensions between Hamas and Fatah, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where some Fatah members have accused Hamas of involvement in the assassination of a Fatah-allied security chief last week. If the rival factions fail to reach agreement, more violent confrontations appear inevitable.

Abbas, who was elected separately, has few other options. As president, he could dissolve the Hamas government, but a new government would also require -- and likely be denied -- approval by the Hamas-controlled parliament. Palestinians would likely balk at early elections, having gone to the polls just nine months ago, and Fatah has no guarantee it would win this time.

Earlier this month, Hamas agreed in principle to share power with Fatah, hoping a broader coalition would end the crippling international boycott of the Palestinian Authority. The two sides agreed that the new government would strive to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel, implying recognition of the Jewish state.

At the UN last week, Abbas said the new government would recognize Israel, prompting angry denials by Hamas. On Friday, Haniyeh offered a long-term truce with Israel instead.

After meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, Abbas told reporters that there was "backtracking" on the negotiations for a unity government.

"Sadly, we are back to zero," he said.

Saeb Erekat, who accompanied Abbas, said that Hamas had pulled back from previous agreements. Erekat noted that a new Palestinian government -- not Hamas as a group -- would be expected to recognize Israel.

"The carrot [for Hamas] is improving the Palestinian situation," he said.

However, Hamas fears it will lose popular support if it softens its hardline positions. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Palestinians don't want Hamas to recognize Israel, even though two-thirds also want Abbas to negotiate a peace deal with the Jewish state.

Ahmed Yousef, an aide to Haniyeh, suggested that Abbas misrepresented the platform of the emerging coalition in order to secure international support.

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