Early Palestinian polls still option — Abbas

RAMALLAH — Talks on a Palestinian unity government will continue today in Gaza, after the Damascus meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal ended inconclusively but on a positive note.

Abbas told journalists in Damascus on Monday that the talks had been “fruitful”, though he still did not rule out early elections.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh confirmed the continued talks in Gaza after what he yesterday described as a “good meeting” in Damascus. But serious differences remain, not least over the government’s political programme. With reports suggesting that wrangling over portfolios has been largely resolved, and the most contentious one, the interior ministry, falling to an independent, Hamas and Fateh need to hammer out agreement on a programme that will at the same time satisfy the international community and allow Hamas to maintain its fundamental positions.

Much will come down to language. Hamas has ruled out an outright recognition of Israel, but seems to hope that calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state on 1967 territory is enough of a nod in this direction.

Hamas has also rejected ending the armed resistance as demanded by the international community but is calling for a long-term truce and has so far maintained a shaky ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip. On the third international condition, Hamas is talking about “respect” for previously signed agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel rather than adherence.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Salah Bardawil, told the Associated Press that “abiding by [previous agreements] means recognising Israel, and that’s a free gift to Israel”.

“If the argument is we must deal with the reality before us, we say, let’s respect those agreements, and not become completely entangled in the mistakes of the past,” he added.

Another spokesman for the Islamist group, Ismail Radwan, said that while “Hamas has given very flexible formulas… unfortunately there are still difficulties”.

Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, a Fateh spokesman, said a new administration must adopt policies that would lead the West to lift the freeze in aid to the Palestinian government.

“When two political agendas clash we should go back to the people and they should choose an agenda,” he told Reuters, referring to Abbas’ call for early elections.

A joint statement issued by Abbas and Mishaal following their meeting Sunday said the two sides “achieved major progress” and pledged to continue talks on forming a coalition government.

“There are still points of disagreement, but we will try to resolve them through a national dialogue until we form a national unity government,” Mishaal said during a press conference with Abbas in the Syrian capital.

The two sides stressed that Palestinian infighting, which has killed at least 35 people in recent months, was unacceptable and pledged to try to avoid political friction that has been sparking the violence.

“Palestinian bloodshed was considered totally prohibited, and we must exert all efforts to avoid friction and internal clashes,” Abbas said.

In Amman, meanwhile, the government said it hoped that the Abbas-Mishaal meeting would lead to reconciliation between Palestinian factions.

“King Abdullah and the government support any efforts to enhance Palestinian national reconciliation,” Government Spokesperson Nasser Judeh was quoted by the Jordan News Agency, Petra, as telling a weekly press briefing.


New chief-of-staff


Israeli media reports, meanwhile, suggest that Israel has chosen a new army chief after the resignation last week of Dan Halutz.

The new chief-of-staff is reported to be Gaby Ashkenazy, 52, an infantry commander and currently director of the Israeli defence ministry.

Ashkenazy was the preferred choice of Minister of Defence Amir Peretz but became the default candidate after his leading rival for the post, Deputy Chief-of-Staff Moshe Kaplinsky, dropped out of the race.

That decision has averted a potentially fatal split in the Israeli government. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported to have canvassed candidates himself for the position. The minister of defence is legally responsible for appointing the chief-of-staff and had Olmert gone behind Peretz’ back an already fractious relationship between the two main coalition leaders might have severed completely.

Halutz resigned before a potentially damning report into the conduct of military and political leaders during Israel’s war in Lebanon last year was finalised. Israel failed to achieve its two main objectives in that war, to secure the release of two captured Israeli soldiers and destroy Hizbollah.

In another development, an explosion ripped through the office of Al Arabiya television in Gaza City on Monday, causing no injuries, police told Reuters.

The newsroom was empty when an explosive device placed outside detonated, police said, destroying the outside door of the office of the Dubai-based Arabic satellite television station and damaging some walls inside.

Hamas and the Fateh-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades condemned the attack. Palestinian journalists in Gaza said they would hold a strike on Tuesday in protest against the bombing, according to Reuters.

Arabiya executive editor Nabil Khatib said in Dubai the station had received threats against its office but it was not clear if the blast was linked to them. Palestinian police said they were investigating the attack.

The explosion smashed the door of the office of Reuters across the hallway.

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