Abbas says talks with Hamas have hit a `dead end'; plans to take dramatic steps

Friday, December 1st 2006, 5:46 am
By: News On 6

JERICHO, West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled he is giving up on forming a moderate government to replace the one headed by the militant Islamic Hamas, a decision that could lead to violence or new elections _ or both.

Speaking Thursday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at his side, Abbas said months of negotiations with Hamas, aimed at forming a unity government that would lead the West to lift a painful aid cutoff, were at a ``dead end.''

Hamas suggested Abbas was bluffing. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, speaking in Cairo, denied the talks had broken down.

Abbas' aides said he would decide on his next move in coming days, in consultation with the PLO Executive Committee, the Palestinians' top decision-making body.

His options are limited and fraught with risk. Abbas can fire the Hamas government as a stopgap measure, but would quickly see any new government vetoed by the clear Hamas majority in parliament. Or he can hold a referendum on whether to call new elections that his weakened Fatah movement might easily lose.

Hamas swept parliamentary elections in January, defeating Abbas' Fatah. Since then the conflict between the two rivals has often turned violent, with armed forces from the two sides firing on each other. An end of coalition talks could spark new clashes.

The prospect of more turmoil in the Palestinian territories came just as Rice was lending high-level support to renewed peace momentum, highlighted by a fresh truce on the Gaza-Israel border and a conciliatory speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this week, offering to negotiate a peace deal, giving up large amounts of territory and dismantling West Bank settlements.

Rice met separately with Abbas and Olmert on Thursday. She praised the Israeli leader for his speech and called on both sides to enforce the cease-fire carefully.

The latest round of Palestinian government talks foundered over who will control weapons and money in a future Cabinet of independent administrators who would be close to, but not leading members of Hamas and Fatah.

``We have exerted efforts, we have worked in many directions, but unfortunately we have hit a dead end,'' Abbas said Thursday after meeting for an hour with Rice in the West Bank town of Jericho.

A top Abbas confidant, Saeb Erekat, said Abbas was done talking to Hamas. ``In my opinion if the president says this it means he personally will not pursue this any longer,'' Erekat told The Associated Press. ``He will summon the PLO Executive Committee, or leadership, and study the options, anything short of a civil war.''

Even an Abbas-Olmert summit on lesser issues, such as easing Israel's travel restrictions on Palestinians, could only take place after the truce has been extended to the West Bank and Israel releases Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-allied militants, Erekat said. Hamas is demanding freedom for up to 1,400 prisoners of the 9,000 Israel holds.

Israel's Channel 2 TV reported that Israeli and Palestinian officials would begin talking next week about extending the truce to the West Bank, and military contacts would resume. The Gaza truce was agreed on among the Palestinian factions and then presented to Israel for approval, without negotiations.

Rice said the two sides should seize the opportunity.

``Hopefully we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts and intensify our efforts toward the two-state solution that we all desire,'' Rice said in the joint news conference with Abbas.

But the fragility of that cease-fire was emphasized Friday when Gaza militants fired a rocket into Israel. A violent offshoot of Abbas' Fatah took responsibility in a fax sent to reporters.

Since the cease-fire began six days ago, Palestinian militants have fired 14 rockets, by the army's count. Four are known to have landed inside Israel, which has not responded to the rocket fire.

Separately, Israeli troops shot to death a Palestinian in Hebron, a militant stronghold in the West Bank. The army said the man was a militant who threw a firebomb at an Israeli patrol. Palestinian hospital officials said a 22-year-old man was killed by troops, but could not confirm he was a militant.

Across the West Bank, the army arrested 29 Palestinians in raids overnight.

Rice also reiterated support for a ``viable and contiguous'' Palestinian state and addressed Palestinian concerns about Israeli settlement expansion.

Abbas aides said he gave her new maps and documents on settlement construction.

``No actions that are being taken now should prejudge the outcome of a final status agreement,'' Rice said, in a reference to Israeli settlement activity.