Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed in a much-anticipated speech Saturday that he plans to call early elections, but he left open the possibility of reaching agreement on a unity government with the ruling Hamas movement.
Going forward with elections for president and parliament would risk adding to tensions between Abbas' Fatah Party and Hamas, renewing fears that the conflict between the well-armed rivals could descend into a Palestinian civil war. And it would represent a major political gamble by Abbas that could determine the shape of the Palestinian leadership for years to come.
Abbas had signaled to officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization last weekend that he planned to seek early elections. In his speech Saturday, after a week of escalating violence between Fatah and Hamas supporters, he told Palestinians that the vote was necessary to end a months-long international aid embargo and avert further violence.
Early today, militants armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a training camp for Abbas' presidential guard in Gaza City, killing an officer and wounding four before setting fire to the tents. Fatah blamed the military wing of Hamas for the attack, but Hamas denied involvement.
Hamas took control of the Palestinian government after winning parliamentary elections in January and since has been locked in a sometimes-violent power struggle with Fatah.
"We should not continue in a vicious circle while life deteriorates," Abbas said in a fiery address at his presidential compound that lasted more than 90 minutes and referred to Hamas in sometimes mocking tones. "We'll go back to the people and let the people decide."
The crowd of about 400, mostly Fatah activists, erupted in cheers.
The White House and British Prime Minister Tony Blair also welcomed the speech by Abbas.
It remains to be seen whether Abbas' comments are more than a bluff to prod Hamas into concessions that could produce a power-sharing arrangement.
Abbas has yet to sign a decree ordering new elections, and by reiterating that he prefers a compromise coalition, he led many observers to view the remarks mainly as a way to pressure Hamas. Previous talks broke down mainly over Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel.
"He threatened this election. He will not use it," said Hassan Khreisheh, an independent lawmaker from Tulkarm who was endorsed by Hamas in the recent elections.
Hamas argues that Abbas lacks authority to effectively disband the legislature by calling for new voting to replace members elected to serve until 2010.
Ahmed Yousef, a top political advisor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City, said going forward with elections would worsen strife between the two groups.
"This is not going to help the Palestinians at all. This will escalate the situation," Yousef said in a telephone interview.
The 1997 Basic Law, which was amended in 2003 and serves as the Palestinian constitution, has no provision for early elections. Some experts say the absence of any specific language bars Abbas from dissolving parliament and calling early elections. But Abbas aides insist that it means he is not forbidden to do so.
Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide who is the chief Palestinian negotiator, said it could take until mid-2007 to prepare for elections. He said Abbas would meet soon with Palestinian elections officials to establish a date, and then sign the decree.
It's not clear whether Abbas would run again for president. He is widely viewed as weak and lacking a big public following. In addition, Fatah appears to have made little headway in gaining support after its loss in January.
If Fatah were to lose the presidency to Hamas, the United States, other Western nations and Israel could be left with no Palestinian negotiating partner.
They consider Hamas a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with its leaders.
Proceeding with a vote in the face of Hamas' opposition could ignite more factional clashes, and threaten a fragile 3-week-old cease-fire with Israel.
"I think the president is making the biggest sacrifice of his life," Erekat said.
Despite questions about his legal authority, Abbas has few good alternatives. Months of negotiations with Hamas have been fruitless, and the Western aid embargo has crippled the Palestinian territories.
"The question is not legal anymore. The question is political. If you have a crisis like this, what do you do?" said Ali Jarbawi, a political analyst.
Jarbawi said the plan to seek new elections appeared to be a bargaining chip, but that Abbas also seemed serious about it.
Hamas on Friday accused Fatah of trying to kill Haniyeh, who came under fire as he returned to the Gaza Strip from Egypt the night before. Haniyeh was not hurt but a bodyguard was killed and two others, Haniyeh's son and Yousef, suffered minor injuries.
Fatah officials blamed Hamas militants who had stormed the border crossing and opened fire, first on Palestinian security forces and later on Egyptian border guards.
Mustafa Barghouti, a leftist lawmaker who has served as a mediator between Hamas and Fatah, said he favored continued efforts to forge a unity government that would soothe the political tensions and end the aid sanctions. "He left room for that, and we will use that room," Barghouti said.