Hamas insists it won't recognize Israel, despite promise to Abbas to keep low profile


Tuesday, November 14th 2006, 8:33 am
By: News On 6


JERUSALEM (AP) Hamas insisted Tuesday it would not recognize Israel even after a unity government takes power in the Palestinian territories, complicating efforts to form a more moderate coalition that would clear the way for vital foreign aid.

The militant Islamic group suggested, however, that the emerging coalition would be free to stake out a different position, apparently hoping the ambiguity in its statements will allow it to preserve its anti-Israel ideology but loosen international sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian economy.

The tough talk came despite Hamas' promises to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that it would refrain from incendiary public statements during the delicate coalition talks.

Abbas was meeting with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt on Tuesday and Wednesday to win their blessing for what he hopes will be a broader package deal, including not only formation of a moderate government, but also a cease-fire with Israel and an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap.

On Wednesday, envoys of the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators, the United States, the U.N., the European Union and Russia, were to meet in Cairo, in part to be briefed on the coalition talks. Abbas met the U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, on Tuesday night.

President Bush also called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key peace meditator, to discuss the latest developments, Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency reported.

For Abbas' plan to work, Israel and the West must accept the premise that Hamas is largely ceding power by making room for a 24-member Cabinet of independent administrators, even though the Islamic militants get to appoint nine of the ministers and would retain considerable control.

The monthslong deadlock over whether the new government would recognize Israel is to be solved by a division of labor: Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organization would lead peace talks with Israel, while the government of experts runs daily life in the Palestinian territories.

In such a constellation, the argument goes, the government does not need to take a position on whether to recognize Israel or renounce violence, because it deals with more mundane issues.

However, the international community has demanded such declarations in exchange for lifting its aid boycott.

So far, Israel and the West have withheld judgment on Abbas' efforts, and the latest Hamas comments might make it harder for the Palestinian leader to market a future agreement.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top official in Hamas' exiled leadership, said demands that the group recognize Israel are ``illegal and illegitimate.''

However, Abu Marzouk and other spokesmen differentiated between Hamas and a new government. ``It's not Hamas that will pronounce on this subject,'' he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Palestinian political activity is an indication of Hamas' inability to govern. ``It's a simple reflection of the reality that because of their policies, they have failed,'' he said.

Despite the latest damper, negotiators reported more progress Tuesday, saying they reached agreement on the division of Cabinet portfolios. Hamas would choose nine ministers, Fatah would appoint six, and four smaller factions would pick one each. Five more independent ministers would require the approval of Hamas and Fatah, negotiators said.

On Monday, the two sides reached agreement in principle on a new prime minister, U.S. educated microbiologist Mohammed Shabir, former president of the Islamic University in Gaza City. Shabir, 60, has ties to both Hamas and Fatah.

One sticking point could be control over the Interior Ministry, in charge of key branches of the security forces. Hamas seeks guarantees that its Executive Force, a security branch it set up in recent months, will not be dismantled, but Abbas has not made any promises.

In Cairo on Tuesday night, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the peace process could also be advanced if Israel and the Palestinians would agree to swap the Israeli corporal whom Hamas-allied militants kidnapped in June with some Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.