Hamas’ prime minister-in-waiting kept the Middle East in suspense by refusing to give an assurance that he would honour interim peace deals with Israel.
Accepting a letter designating him as prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of the militant Islamic group met Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday for more than two hours – their second such session in two days and an indication of the wide gaps between the two.
Abbas is the head of Fatah, the movement Hamas trounced in last month’s parliamentary election. Abbas was elected separately as Palestinian Authority president last year and now he will have to deal with a Hamas parliament and Cabinet.
The letter, in addition to the official appointment, offered a one-page summary of Abbas’ political positions, said Abbas aides.
Abbas has said the new government must accept the agreements that previous Palestinian governments made – including interim peace accords with Israel and the internationally backed “road map” peace plan for a Palestinian state.
But Haniyeh was non-committal. “We will study it, and God willing, we will answer soon to Abu Mazen (Abbas),” he said.
Hamas ideology does not accept a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the militant group has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel. Since the election, Hamas has rebuffed demands from the US, United Nations, European Union and Israel to recognise the Jewish state and renounce violence.
Haniyeh, a relative moderate by Hamas standards who is known as a skilled negotiator, said he wanted to bring Fatah into his government.
“I think the room for agreement with Fatah is large,” he said, “and we hope to reach a formula through which we can form a national unity government.” So far Fatah has refused.
Haniyeh also said it was “premature” to discuss incorporating Hamas’ military wing into the Palestinian security services.
Hamas’ rise to power has badly damaged cances of renewing long-stalled peace negotiations. Israel refuses to deal with the group until it abandons violence and recognises the Jewish state. Further diminishing peace prospects, exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was in Iran, Israel’s staunchest enemy, seeking to drum up support.
Speaking to Israel TV, acting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said the chances of a “quick agreement” with the Palestinians were smaller now that Hamas was in charge.
“But the hope has not disappeared, and I am responsible for both things, the battle against Hamas and maintaining hope, the chance to reach an agreement,” Olmert said.
It is unclear how Israel could carry out peace talks with Hamas in the Palestinian government. Abbas has suggested that he could personally handle peace negotiations, while letting Hamas focus on its domestic agenda of improving social services and rooting out government corruption.
But Israeli officials say they will not deal with a ”two-headed government” that includes a party committed to the country’s destruction. After Hamas took over parliament, Israel froze the transfer of around £28 million in tax funds to the cash-starved Palestinian Authority each month.
Israel has also urged the international community to join it in isolating Hamas. The US and European Union, which both consider Hamas a terrorist group, have threatened to halt hundreds of millions of dollars of vital foreign aid once the new Palestinian Cabinet takes office.