Abbas Says Hamas Will Likely Soften Stance on Israel

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."

Abbas said a final agreement would depend on Israel's pulling back to the boundaries that existed on the eve of the 1967 Middle East war, during which it occupied the West Bank and Gaza. That would require Israel to give up its largest settlement blocs and East Jerusalem, conditions rejected by many Israeli politicians who will likely play leading roles in the next government.

In an April 2004 letter to Sharon, President Bush wrote that "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return" of Israel to those borders. But Abbas said he has been assured by U.S. officials that the Bush administration supports his position.

"I don't think Gaza is like the West Bank," Abbas said. "In the West Bank, they want to demarcate the line of the border and say this is your state, and they want that state inside the wall, without negotiations. This is something else, something different. I don't think anyone from the outside will accept such a policy."

Abbas, who was elected president in January 2005 following Yasser Arafat's death, appeared relaxed throughout the talk, even as Israeli artillery pounded northern Gaza in an attempt to stop Palestinians from firing homemade rockets into southern Israel.

He said he did not intend to resign, despite previous indications he might if he could not fulfill his political program, which hinges on achieving a peace agreement with Israel.

Abbas said he would give Hamas, whose cabinet was sworn in on March 29, a fair chance to prove itself in government because "you cannot say you failed after two days or a week."

But at the same time, he has begun defining his own powers as Hamas officials, in his words, have begun displaying signs of "confusion in their political positions." He cited the contradictory statements that Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar gave to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan this week about whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution.

"I believe they should quickly change their attitude and positions," Abbas said. "Otherwise, there will be a real catastrophe for Palestinian society."

In the meantime, Abbas said, the Fatah movement that he has been a part of for more than half his life is reforming itself, chastened by the January defeat that ended its long monopoly on power.

Fatah candidates and others affiliated with the party who ran as independents actually received a majority of the popular vote. But in many individual district races, Fatah-affiliated candidates competed against each other, dividing the vote and ensuring a Hamas parliamentary majority. Abbas said the results showed that "the people are still in a moderate mood."

"I should not be blamed for bringing democracy, I should be praised," Abbas said. "If democracy brought Hamas, it is not my mistake. It is Fatah's mistake because they ran in the elections divided."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company