Abbas in Damascus for crucial talks with Mishaal

A023289021.jpgRAMALLAH — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was due to meet exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal in Damascus last night amid hopes that the months-long negotiations over a unity government might finally be nearing resolution.

Up until the last moment, officials close to both the Fateh and Hamas heads had been cagey, but the meeting was confirmed yesterday afternoon by Hamas official Izzat Al Rishq, who said Abbas and Mishaal would be discussing who should fill the problem portfolios of interior, finance and foreign affairs as well as the political programme of any unity government.  “We are hoping tonight will result in solving the issue of the final language of the manifesto and those in charge of the three key ministries. This is not a last chance meeting. Both sides are aware that prolonging crisis and confrontation only serves Israel,” Rishq told Reuters.

Abbas has billed the talks as the last chance to resolve differences between the two main Palestinian factions. He has threatened Hamas with early elections should negotiations fail, a move Hamas considers a coup against its government and a threat that has already caused severe internal Palestinian fighting.

“We say either there is a [unity] government or elections,” Abbas said after a meeting Friday with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Ramallah. “Elections don’t mean we want to throw Hamas into the sea. It has been elected and can be elected again.”

The Palestinian Authority is nearly paralysed as a result of the freeze on international funding installed at the behest of Washington after Hamas formed a government last March. While the international donors community has continued a high level of funding, all money now goes directly through the president’s office, leaving the Palestinian Authority unable to function. By far the largest chunk of money missing is not as a result of that freeze, however, but rather Israel’s decision to suspend transferring tax monies it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, a decision that has meant public sector workers have gone largely unpaid since March last year.

On Friday, Israel announced that it had released $100 million of that money directly to Abbas’ office. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in response demanded that Israel release all the money it owes the Palestinian Authority, around $500 million, saying he wasn’t bothered whether the money went to his government or the office of Abbas as long as it “helped reduce Palestinian suffering”.

In spite of the financial freeze, Haniyeh’s government on Thursday announced a bigger budget for 2007 than last year, reflecting a bigger public sector payroll. Acting finance minister Samir Abu Aisheh, said the budget would amount to $2.56 billion, an increase of about $500 million from 2006.

It is the first budget presented by the Hamas-led government. The freeze on international funding meant budget discussions were postponed indefinitely throughout 2006 and a budget was never approved by parliament. The government simply extended the 2005 budget.

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