Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday he would call early elections, harshly denouncing the Islamic Hamas for its Gaza takeover, declaring, "even the devil cannot match their lies."
In a speech on Wednesday, Abbas asked the Palestine Central Council, a Palestinian Liberation Organization decision-making body, to endorse his call for elections that aides said would be designed to freeze Hamas out of the political arena.
Abbas' aides said they expected the election by the end of the year or early nexy year. His announcement came as the US and other international mediators were moving swiftly to try to revive Mideast peace efforts.
Abbas denounced Hamas in the harshest terms in his speech, blaming the Islamist militants for staging "a coup" against him in Gaza and for provoking Israel and Egypt to seal Gaza's borders.
Hamas is "committing capital crimes, bloody crimes against our people every day, every minute, every hour," he fumed. "There will be no dialogue until they return Gaza to what it was before."
"Even the devil cannot match their lies," he said.
In five days of bloody fighting last month, Hamas crushed Fatah gunmen and the presidential security force in Gaza.
Abbas retaliated by dismissing the Hamas-led coalition government formed with Fatah after last year's elections, and created a caretaker government of technocrats and moderates that governs the West Bank but holds little sway in Gaza.
"We will call on the council to decide on early elections," he said. "We won't exclude anybody from having their say in a democratic way."
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said neither Abbas nor the council was empowered to call elections.
"It is not legitimate to issue such a recommendation," he said. "This council has expired and has no mandate and no authority."
In Jerusalem, the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the proposed elections did not come up in his talks with Abbas.
Solana was on a last trip to the region before a meeting yesterday in Portugal between the EU, UN US and Russia - the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - with their newly appointed emissary, former British prime minister Tony Blair. The meeting was to follow up on US President George W. Bush's call this week for a peace conference in the autumn.
Abbas said the conference, to be chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should address the core issues of Israel's borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
"We have to be ready to establish a Palestinian state when it comes," he said.
Israel has welcomed the movement to revive peace efforts that stalled in 2000, but has been reluctant to deal with the conflict's toughest issues as long as violence continues and Hamas - which rejects Israel's legitimacy as a nation - remains a political factor.
Palestinian officials said Abbas wanted to hold elections before Israel releases Hamas legislators it has arrested, pre-empting the possibility that they could return to parliament and vote the caretaker government from power.
Israel is unlikely to release the legislators except as part of a prisoner exchange for three captured Israeli soldiers, one held in Gaza and two held by the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
To further enhance Fatah's election chances, Abbas announced he would change the electoral system, eliminating regional balloting.
Last year, Fatah candidates fought each other in several constituencies, allowing Hamas to win those seats and contributing to Fatah's unprecedented rout.
Instead, Palestinians will vote for parties, and parliament seats would be apportioned according to the percentage of votes each party received.
Though Abbas said the elections will be open to all Palestinians, Hamas said it would oppose the balloting, and it was hard to see how they could be conducted in Gaza.
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