Abbas urged to call early elections

001.jpgRAMALLAH (AP) — Leave Hamas in power for now, but call elections once the economic crisis in the Palestinian territories worsens further — that’s the emerging consensus of a panel advising President Mahmoud Abbas on how to handle the Islamists, a member of the group said Thursday.

Abbas is to announce his decision in a speech next week.

However, Hamas officials said they can keep their government afloat without Western aid, suggesting they are becoming increasingly immune to domestic and international pressure to soften their positions. Hamas has rejected demands that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals.

Abbas, seeking to end an international economic boycott against the Hamas-led government, has been pushing the Islamist group to join his moderate Fateh Party in a coalition government.

But since coalition talks broke down last week, the Palestinian leader has been weighing three options: leave Hamas in power, dismiss the Hamas government or call a referendum on holding new elections.

All of these choices have serious drawbacks.

Leaving Hamas in power would mean the international aid boycott remains in place. The Hamas-dominated parliament could block any attempt to install a new Cabinet. If Abbas calls elections, the pragmatic Fateh — still in disarray after losing to Hamas in parliament elections early this year — could lose.

Abbas met late Wednesday with six leading PLO members to give him advice.

Saleh Raafat, a member of the panel, said a combination of two options is being considered.

“We have two recommendations,” said Raafat, of the PLO’s small FIDA Party. “The first is leaving Hamas in power while Fateh constitutes the opposition and gives Hamas a chance to solve the crisis. If it can’t do so, then we have to resort to the second choice, a referendum on early elections.” “We are going to give Hamas a chance to solve the crisis, but I am sure it will not pass the test. It will not succeed unless it changes [its positions],” he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat of Fateh said the panel would make its final decision on Saturday, and that Abbas would then deliver a speech to the nation next week.

Azzam Ahmed, a top Fateh official, said he believed early elections were inevitable, but a series of steps would have to be taken first. He did not elaborate.

Abbas refused to be drawn out on the issue. Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, he would only say that the coalition talks with Hamas have hit an impasse, though he suggested new talks were possible.

“Unfortunately, our dialogue hit a dead end, although we should keep up hope to have a national unity government,” he said.

Hamas denounced the idea of early elections and said it would not relinquish power.

“If we won’t have a national unity government, we will not abandon our duty,” said Deputy Finance Minister Samir Abu Aisha. “We will keep running the government, even with minimal aid.”  Labour Minister Mohammad Barghouthi of Hamas said donations from Arab countries could keep the government afloat, citing a pledge by Qatar for $40 million a month to cover the salaries of teachers and some health workers. “Adding to that the local revenues and the decrease in running costs, I think we can manage to keep running the Palestinian Authority,” Barghouthi said.

However, independent economists said the government remains in a deep trouble. UN aid groups are asking for a record $450 million in aid to prevent a further deterioration.

According to the UN, 65 per cent of Palestinians are living in poverty and 29 per cent are unemployed. The Palestinian healthcare system is running out of medicine and on the verge of collapse, and nearly 50 per cent of Palestinians don’t have reliable access to food.

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