Top PLO body gives Abbas go-ahead for early elections

A TOP PLO body gave its approval Thursday to President Mahmoud Abbas to call new presidential and legislative elections, a high-stakes gamble meant to sideline Hamas, but also bound to set off new confrontations with the Islamists and cement the West Bank-Gaza divide.

Hamas, which won parliament elections last year, threatened to derail a new vote.

A two-day meeting of the 115-member central council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) concluded with an endorsement of Abbas’ plan to stage elections and to switch to a proportional electoral system, under which voters cast ballots for parties rather than individual candidates. The decisions were adopted by consensus.

A senior Israeli security official, meanwhile, said the fighters have significantly stepped up weapons smuggling since taking over Gaza by force last month. He said Hamas has brought 20 tonnes of explosives into Gaza and is trying to import longer-range rockets. Israel’s military will have to intervene at some point to avert a growing threat, the official said, raising the possibility of a large-scale operation in coming months.

Abbas and Hamas have been wrangling over political legitimacy since the Gaza takeover. Abbas, separately elected in 2005, fired the Hamas-led government and installed a West Bank-based caretaker Cabinet of moderates.

Hamas has denounced the measures as unconstitutional. Despite broad international backing and little opposition in the West Bank, Abbas has reached out for more political support and asked the PLO council for its backing.

The PLO, led by Abbas, has become largely defunct in recent years, though officially it is still the umbrella group for all Palestinian factions, except for Hamas which refused to join. Abbas has been trying to harness the PLO for his power struggle against Hamas.

On Thursday, the PLO central council drafted a resolution backing the idea of elections, and final approval was expected later in the day. The council is dominated by members of Abbas’ Fateh movement. It remains unclear whether Abbas is serious about a new vote or simply trying to pressure Hamas to reverse its Gaza takeover.

The risks of holding elections are high. Abbas aides have said he would run for president again, even though polls indicate his popularity is low and he’d be neck-and-neck with Hamas’ most popular politician, Ismail Haniyeh, who was deposed as prime minister by him last month.

Hamas can prevent voting in Gaza, and this would deepen the territorial division between Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank.

Even if voting goes ahead in the West Bank, a Fateh stronghold, there’s no guarantee Abbas or his party would win. Fateh was ousted in 2006 because of widespread voter anger over official corruption, and the party has failed to reform itself.

If Abbas moves forward with elections, they would likely be held late this year or early next year.

Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of Hamas, said Hamas would try to derail elections. “The Palestinian people, and Hamas is a part of the people, will not allow early elections to create results that America approves of,” he told reporters in Gaza City.

Zahar said he was confident Hamas could win a presidential race against a Fateh candidate, but would still boycott an early vote. The next scheduled elections are in January 2010.

Some participants in Thursday’s central council meeting said they believe Abbas is simply trying to force Hamas to reverse the takeover, and that in such a case he’d quickly call of elections.

“Our call for early elections is another means of pressure on Hamas to retract,” said Ahmed Majdalani, a member of a small PLO faction.

However, the international community has urged Abbas not to renew a dialogue with the Islamists, after he failed in more than a year of negotiations to persuade them to moderate their views.

Once cordial relations between Abbas and Hamas leaders have also deteriorated sharply. Zahar on Thursday accused Abbas of collaborating with Israel to starve the residents of Gaza. On Wednesday, Abbas declared that “even the devil cannot match their [Hamas’] lies.” Abbas’ push for early elections came as the “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers — EU, the UN, the US and Russia — was meeting in Portugal with its newly appointed emissary, former British prime minister Tony Blair. The meeting was to follow up on US President George W. Bush’s call this week for a peace conference in the fall.

Despite his star power and charisma, Blair was only given a limited mandate, to help the Palestinians develop their infrastructure and economy. This would make any breakthrough in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under his leadership unlikely.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday defended the decision to limit Blair’s role, saying he would complement US-led diplomatic efforts — and that there was plenty of work for everyone.

In Israel, a senior military official warned that Hamas has been stepping up weapons smuggling since seizing Gaza last month. Israel has a plan for a military operation against Hamas, but the government must first approve it, the Israeli official said on condition of anonymity, in line with military briefing rules. If such action is not taken in the coming year or two, Hamas will be too powerful to cut down, he said.

Hamas rejected the Israeli assessment. “This is not true,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “They want to use this as a pretext to tighten the siege on Gaza.”

In Amman, meanwhile, the Jordanian ambassador to  Israel confirmed Thursday a visit to Israel by Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday to push for the Arab Peace Initiative.

Ali Ayed told the Jordan News Agency, Petra, that the top diplomats will hold talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Knesset President Dahlia Itzik and other officials.

The visit would be the first by the Arab League working group, set up in April to hold contacts with Israel over the initiative.

The land-for-peace initiative offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.

Olmert has said he saw positive points in the Arab peace offer. But Israel opposes the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in what is now the Jewish state, and wants to hold on to major settlement blocks in the West Bank.

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