Abbas may call early elections

Special to The Times

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that he planned to call early presidential and parliamentary elections, a risky move aimed at replacing the Hamas-led government and clearing the way for peace talks with Israel.

Hamas warned that any such step would be illegal and meet with resistance, raising the stakes in a months-long and often violent conflict over control of the Palestinian Authority.

"We will not allow any coup against this government," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

Under pressure at home and abroad to take decisive action, Abbas revealed his intention to a closed session here of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, participants in the meeting said. But he withheld a formal announcement until later this week.

He left the door open to compromise with Hamas, saying there was still time for the Iranian-backed Islamic movement to hand power voluntarily to a multiparty "unity government" acceptable to Israel and the West. But he said he would no longer take part in negotiations with Hamas on the issue, which broke off early this month.

Hamas won control of the parliament and Cabinet by unseating the Fatah Party of the more moderate Abbas in January elections. That triggered economic sanctions by Israel and Western nations, including the United States, which demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

As economic hardship worsened in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Abbas began pressing Hamas six months ago to give way to a unity government. The sanctions have left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 employees, leading to frequent labor strikes and armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas.

On Saturday, at least 1,400 Palestinian policemen demanding their paychecks stormed the grounds of the parliament building in Gaza City and exchanged gunfire with a Hamas-led contingent of guards. Two guards were slightly wounded.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, dozens of parents carrying infants broke into a mother-and-child clinic that had been closed by a health workers strike.

The conflict has frustrated a recent push by the Bush administration to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a six-year hiatus. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered last month to hold talks with Abbas if the Palestinians installed a government that recognized the Jewish state and freed a captive Israeli soldier.

But Abbas told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month that efforts to form a unity government had hit a dead end because Hamas insisted on keeping control of the police and the treasury.

Abbas summoned the PLO committee, an advisory group, to guide his next steps. Participants in the meeting Saturday said he accepted its recommendation to call parliamentary elections early next year, three years ahead of schedule, and decided after lengthy debate to put his own job on the line as well. Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year presidential term.

"I have done my part, and the status quo cannot be maintained," several aides quoted Abbas as saying. "I see no choice but to go back to the people."

Palestinian officials say it would take at least three months to organize elections once Abbas formally calls them.

The move would be a gamble for Abbas because it is far from certain that he and his party could win elections, or even conduct them if Hamas is violently opposed.

Hamas' popularity has slipped since it took office, but Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, remains divided and tarnished by corruption during the late Yasser Arafat's rule.

Two respected polls taken in September gave Fatah small leads over Hamas in voter preference.

In its initial reaction to Saturday's decision, Hamas indicated it would boycott any new elections. Hamas spokesmen contended that Abbas has no authority to call elections early; aides to the president said that because Palestinian law does not address the issue, he is free to do so.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator who took part in the meeting, said Abbas believed it would be "difficult for Hamas to resist going back to the electorate."

An aide to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Saturday that Hamas preferred to resume negotiations on a unity government. "The door is still open because this is the best and safe alternative for all of us," the aide, Ahmed Yousef, told the Arabic satellite television channel Al Jazeera.

On Friday, Haniyeh reiterated that Hamas would never recognize Israel or any Arab peace agreements with the Jewish state.

Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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