Abbas Says Hamas Will Likely Soften Stance on Israel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh meet in Gaza. Abbas says Hamas had illusions when it took office.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh meet in Gaza. Abbas says Hamas had illusions when it took office. (Pool Photo By Ali Ali -- Getty Images)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 8, 2006

GAZA CITY, April 7 -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview that the radical Islamic group Hamas is showing signs of confusion after a week running the Palestinian Authority, and he predicted that its leaders would soften their stance toward Israel and accept the Jewish state's right to exist.

"If they do not change, nobody will deal with them," Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's president, said Thursday evening at the seaside presidential compound here.

After Hamas swept aside Abbas's Fatah movement in parliamentary elections on Jan. 25, its leaders "had some illusions that they can deliver, they can survive, let the world go to hell," Abbas said. "But I don't think it's doable now. They have started realizing that this is not doable."

Abbas, 71, outlined for a small group of foreign journalists the challenges he is facing in initiating a peace process with Israel and sustaining the Palestinian Authority as Hamas begins running the government after years of opposing it from the outside. The United States and the European Union have designated Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, as a terrorist organization.

Speaking for 40 minutes in Arabic and English, Abbas presented himself as still relevant in the Palestinian system at a time when Israel and foreign donors are measuring his political influence and ability to change Hamas.

Most of the foreign aid that the Palestinian Authority relies on has been frozen since the election, and Israel has suspended the monthly transfer of tax and customs revenue it collects on the Palestinians' behalf. The ensuing fiscal crisis has left the government unable to pay March salaries to 150,000 public-sector employees and trainees, nearly half of them members of the security forces.

Some foreign donors are deciding whether Abbas, who has demanded that Hamas renounce violence and endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could serve as a conduit for future funding. On Friday, the United States and the European Union suspended projects and aid that might benefit the Hamas-led government.

"We cannot say to the Palestinians that it is good to be democratic and at the same time we punish you," Abbas said. "The E.U. must find a mechanism to get aid to the Palestinian people, and at this time we are discussing such a mechanism."

As president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas is still the nominal head of the government, with responsibility for setting peace policy with Israel. Throughout the interview, he appealed for immediate negotiations with Israel under the U.S.-backed plan known as the "road map," envisioned as a staged process culminating in the creation of a Palestinian state. But the prospects of negotiations dimmed last week when Israeli voters appeared to endorse another unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories by making Kadima the largest party in parliament.

"I'm afraid they will boycott me," Abbas said, referring to Israel. "If they do not deal with me, I cannot do anything."

Ehud Olmert, who became the Kadima leader after Ariel Sharon fell into a coma and who will succeed Sharon as the Israeli prime minister, has pledged to evacuate some West Bank settlements and define Israel's final border -- roughly along the line of a separation barrier that cuts into territory the Palestinians see as part of their future state -- during his four-year term in office. Abbas said such a move, following Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year, would only bequeath the conflict to the next generation.

"They will postpone, they will delay the struggle, and they will not solve the problem," Abbas said. "Okay, they can postpone it for 10 years. After 10 years, our sons will feel it is unfair and they will return to struggle."

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