Abbas backs early Palestinian elections

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today endorsed the idea of early elections, deepening animosities with Hamas following the Islamic militant group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today endorsed the idea of early elections, deepening animosities with Hamas following the Islamic militant group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Abbas did not say when he might hold new elections or how he would organise a vote in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

He has come under criticism for taking tough measures against Hamas in the West Bank, and talk of holding a new vote might be an attempt to silence his critics.

Abbas made the announcement ahead of a gathering later today of a top decision-making body of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the PLO’s Central Council. The PLO is an umbrella group of Palestinian groups, but Hamas is not represented.

The council, dominated by Abbas’ Fatah movement, was expected to call for early elections as a way toward ending its bitter power struggle with Hamas.

“This issue will be discussed in the council and when there is a decision for early elections, it is my responsibility to issue the decree for that. We will issue these decrees in the near future,” Abbas said at a news conference with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

In Jerusalem, Solana said the issue of elections did not come up in his talks with Abbas, but said he did not expect a vote to be held anytime soon.

“Whatever they decide is something with which we would not interfere, but I don’t think that it’s something for tomorrow,” he said after a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Hamas trounced Fatah in 2006 legislative elections, setting off more than a year of factional strife that culminated with Hamas’ takeover of Gaza last month. Abbas responded by forming an emergency government based in the West Bank.

Hamas officials have refused to recognise Abbas’ government and oppose new elections, saying they have been robbed of last year’s victory.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the Central Council has no authority to call new elections. “This will mean a new coup for the Palestinian democracy,” he said.

Aides to Abbas said they expect elections by early next year. Abbas wants the vote held before Israel releases dozens of 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 unless it is part of a prisoner exchange for three captured Israeli soldiers, one held in Gaza and two held by the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Last night, Israel released one of the legislators, former Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, after he signed a pledge to cut his ties with Hamas.

Shaer, who spent two months in detention without being charged, greeted well-wishers at his Nablus home today, calling on the Palestinians to put aside their differences. “Abbas cannot forget that he needs to speak to a large part of the Palestinians. Without Hamas there won’t be a solution.”

Under current conditions, it would be impossible to have a vote in Gaza. Elections would also risk setting off new Palestinian infighting. Many Hamas militants in the West Bank have gone into hiding, but the group has threatened to activate its militants if Abbas cracks down too hard.

“The previous election passed quietly, peacefully, smoothly without a drop of blood. I don’t expect the coming election to be quiet without confrontation,” Said Siyam, a prominent Hamas lawmaker in Gaza, told the group’s Al Aqsa television station.

Since taking control of Gaza, the area’s Hamas rulers have been plunged into deep international isolation, while Abbas’ West Bank government has received support from Israel and the West.

Solana’s visit came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at bolstering Abbas.

Tomorrow, members of the Quartet of Mideast mediators – the US, EU, United Nations and Russia – are meeting in Portugal to discuss the situation in the Mideast. The grouping’s new Mideast envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, will join the gathering.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also taken a series of steps to boost Abbas, including plans to release 256 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture on Friday.

A group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian violence asked the Supreme Court today to delay the planned release. The Almagor group said more time is needed to review the files of the prisoners.

Emi Palmor, director of pardons in the Israeli Justice Ministry, said today’s legal challenge was unlikely to delay the release. She said the courts have always deferred to the government on such matters in the past. She said none of the prisoners has been involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.

Most of the 256 to be freed on Friday are members of Abbas’ Fatah movement. None are from Hamas.

Still, officials in Abbas’ government have said the Israeli release is insufficient.

Prominent among the prisoners is Abdel Rahim Malouh, 61, second in command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001. Palmor said Malouh was not involved in the killing.

Malouh’s wife, Amal, said she was at the family’s West Bank apartment on Monday night when she received a call from Abbas telling her of her husband’s impending freedom. “I was flying with joy,” she said.

Malouh was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to seven years in prison, the family said. A member of the PLO executive committee, he is considered close to Abbas.

In other developments, Israeli troops arrested 19 suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank, the army said. The operation came days after military officials said they were scaling back such raids in another gesture to Abbas.

Military officials said the lull was temporary while Israel worked out a deal granting amnesty to 178 gunmen affiliated with Abbas’ Fatah movement.

The deal was finalised early this week.

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