Abbas asks Hamas to form gov’t

RAMALLAH — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday officially tasked Hamas with forming a new Palestinian government as Palestinian legislators were sworn in during the opening ceremony of the second Palestinian Legislative Council.

The ceremony was held simultaneously in the presidential compound in Ramallah and the parliament building in Gaza City, which were linked via a live video link. Most Gaza-based Palestinian legislators, due to Israeli travel restrictions, were unable to travel to the West Bank.

In his speech to the new parliament, Abbas emphasised that the Palestinian leadership — “the presidency and the government” — will remain committed to the negotiations process and the two-state solution as the “sole political, pragmatic and strategic choice” of the Palestinian people.

The remarks were a direct challenge to Hamas to form a government in agreement with Abbas’ political programme that rests on acceptance of the Oslo accords. The Islamic Resistance Movement, which won an overwhelming majority in last month’s elections, has so far resisted international pressure to recognise Israel and denounce the armed resistance and has long rejected the Oslo accords.

“I hope Hamas will abandon the slogans of their election campaign,” chief Palestinian negotiator and Fateh legislator from Jericho, Saeb Erekat, told reporters after the session. “Hamas must choose a government that will carry out the president’s programme, otherwise the president has the power to dismiss the prime minister and ask another to form a government.”

Erekat said Hamas would have to accept the relevant UN resolutions and international legitimacy in order to avoid what might become a showdown between Hamas and Abbas. “I see no room for compromise,” he said.

In Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ reported choice for prime minister (no official announcement has yet been made), told reporters he hoped a compromise could be reached.

“We will deal with this difference in the political position… through dialogue and understanding, to preserve the national unity of the Palestinian people and promote the higher interests of our people,” he said.

Hamas, which won 74 of 132 seats in the new parliament, has five weeks to form a government.

The members of the Quartet, the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, have all pressured Hamas to recognise Israel and lay down its arms. The US and the EU in particular have taken a hardline stance, threatening to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority should Hamas not cede to these demands and still form a government.

Yesterday, the US announced it had asked for the return of $50 million in PA aid as part of a review of all US aid to the Palestinians that began soon after the Hamas’ electoral victory.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the caretaker government of the PA had agreed to return the $50 million, which was given to the PA last year for infrastructure projects after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

“In the interests of seeing that these funds not potentially make their way into the coffers of a future Palestinian government [made up of Hamas] … we have asked for it to be returned and the Palestinian Authority has agreed,” McCormack told reporters in Washington.

In his speech to parliament yesterday, however, Abbas implored the world not to cut funding to the PA, saying the “Palestinian people should not be punished for its democratic choice.”

“The leadership of this people, and I personally, refuse this blackmail. I ask everyone to abandon it.”

Outside the session, legislator Mustapha Barghouthi, head of the Independent Palestine Party, said the international pressure on Hamas was evidence of an “unacceptable basic imbalance” in the international community’s approach.

“Israel refused to talk to Mahmoud Abbas for a year, and now it will use Hamas as an excuse to continue refusing to talk to the Palestinian leadership,” Barghouthi, told The Jordan Times after the session.

“These were the cleanest democratic elections in the history of the Middle East and the world must accept the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. The international community has a right to demand that Hamas accepts signed agreements, but it must also demand the same of Israel.”

Abbas also addressed Israel directly in his speech, saying only negotiations could put an end to the conflict.

“The path to security can only pass through a just peace… [T]he continuation of the occupation and settlement expansion, the checkpoints, arbitrary killings, the separation wall and arrests will only lead to hatred, despair and continued conflict.”

Hamas legislator Aziz Al Dweik, Hebron, was chosen as the new speaker of the parliament and said officials from Hamas would meet with Abbas later Saturday to discuss procedural issues.

Dweik said Hamas would try to fulfil its “rightful duty to resist occupation.” He also said the new parliament would review “all decisions and decrees” issued during the transitional period, an apparent reference to the last session of the old parliament in which Abbas was given additional powers.

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