Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to call early elections to end an impasse with Hamas but set no date for the vote, signaling he has not given up on forming a unity government with the Islamic militant group.
Hamas greeted the proposal made on Saturday with anger, saying Abbas lacked the authority to replace the government it leads.
Abbas' watered-down threat, which was reported by Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials, reflected the dilemma facing the Palestinian leader after fruitless efforts to form a joint administration with Hamas that would be more moderate toward Israel and end a Western aid boycott.
He is under increasing pressure at home and abroad to take decisive action. But his only hope for bringing down Hamas is to call early elections, a move that could easily backfire with another election defeat, strengthening his political rivals and possibly costing him his job.
Abbas announced his plans at a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee, saying he was exhausted by months of talks with Hamas, participants said. They quoted him as saying he would give a speech later this week announcing his intention to hold elections if a coalition with Hamas cannot be formed.
"The president announced that he will make a speech to the public within days," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent lawmaker involved in the unity talks who attended the meeting.
"He will declare that if there is no national unity government he will call for early presidential and legislative council elections without specifying now the date," Barghouti added.
Hamas officials said Abbas has no authority to call new elections and accused him of undermining efforts to unify the Palestinian people.
"This committee is not legal and its decision is not based on any law," said Salah Bardawil, the head of Hamas' parliamentary faction.
"This decision is aimed at sabotaging the efforts made to form a national unity government," he added.
Hamas trounced Abbas' Fatah party in parliamentary elections in January, taking control of the Palestinian legislature and Cabinet. Abbas, who favors peace talks with Israel, was elected in a separate presidential vote last year.
The formation of the Hamas government triggered a cutoff in aid and other funds by Israel and the West, which demand the militant group renounce violence and recognize Israel.
With Hamas rejecting the demands, Abbas has urged the group to join a coalition with Fatah, hoping that will lead to an end of sanctions. The talks have deadlocked over the division of Cabinet posts and recognition of Israel.
The sanctions have left the Palestinian government unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 workers, causing widespread hardship throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Saturday, approximately 2,500 Palestinian police officers -- some firing in the air -- pushed onto the grounds of Gaza City's parliament to protest their lack of pay. In the West Bank, dozens of protesting parents carrying infants broke into a clinic, while 4,000 police marched to demand back pay.
Despite the hardship, Hamas has refused to give in to the international demands.
On Friday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told a crowd at an Iranian mosque that he would resist US pressure, saying his government would never recognize Israel and would fight for control of Jerusalem.
Iran has given US$120 million to the Hamas-led government, providing some relief but not enough to cover its huge deficit.
Abbas, who has good relations with the international community, has helped funnel nearly US$250 million in aid this year from Arab countries meant to counter the effects of the Western boycott while bypassing Hamas.
Hana Amireh, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said that the group decided on Saturday to reactivate two key departments within the largely dormant PLO, one that handles money and another that deals with negotiations with Israel.
Amireh said the PLO could once again become relevant to the international community.
Such an arrangement would suggest that Abbas, the leader of the PLO, is trying to set up a parallel government -- although his advisers have previously denied that this is his intention.
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