By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 17, 2006
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Dec. 16 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Saturday that he has decided to call early elections, including for his own office, to end a political crisis in the Palestinian territories that has brought a surge in deadly factional violence over the past week.
"We shall not continue this vicious circle," Abbas told a friendly crowd of about 500 legislators, religious leaders and supporters gathered at the Muqata government compound here for a national address. "Let us go back to the people and let them have their say."
Abbas's decision drew a defiant response from Hamas officials, who said the party would not accept a new election less than halfway into its four-year parliamentary term and challenged the president's right to call an early vote. The dispute comes as Palestinian leaders express growing concern over the spate of partisan reprisal killings in the territories, which officials recently warned resemble the start of civil war.
"If the president is willing to go to early elections, he can resign and enter an early presidential election," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip. "But for us, we were elected by the Palestinians, and we are not willing to go through with this experiment. The president's call is illegitimate."
Abbas is a cautious politician by nature, and his announcement came at a time of increasing pressure from within his Fatah movement to resolve the nearly year-long political standoff with Hamas, whose victory in January parliamentary elections ended his party's long monopoly on power.
It was unclear, however, whether he will follow through with his decision, which would lead to general elections around the middle of next year that his deeply divided Fatah party is by no means assured of winning. A Fatah loss of the presidency and parliament would leave the government entirely in the hands of Hamas, a radical Islamic movement considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel.
Abbas did not set a date for the vote. He finished his speech by emphasizing that a national unity government remains his "first choice" to reduce alarming partisan tensions and end the economic sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian Authority since Hamas took power.
In that sense, the announcement was designed to increase pressure on Hamas to renew unity government talks that deadlocked in recent weeks, some analysts and lawmakers said. But Abbas's advisers said he would sign a decree ordering a new vote after meeting in coming days with the Central Elections Commission.
The earliest the vote could be held would be next summer, his aides said, adding that they were not sure whether Abbas would seek reelection.
"It's not just a matter of calling elections, you also have to win them," said Mustafa Barghouti, a lawmaker from the Independent Palestine party who has been serving as a mediator between Hamas and Fatah. "If they were to hold elections tomorrow, I'm fairly certain the results would not be much different."
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Hamas's political leader in exile, Khaled Mashal, was joined by Farouk Kaddoumi, the Fatah general secretary, in denouncing Abbas's decision as illegal.
Palestinian law is unclear on whether the president is allowed to call early parliamentary elections, although it does give him the right to fire the prime minister. Advisers to Abbas argue that because the law does not explicitly prohibit him from ordering an early vote, he has the right to do so.
Abbas's 90-minute speech, marked by anger and sarcasm, came after a particularly brutal few days of factional fighting in the territories.
At the start of the week, gunmen killed the three young sons of a Fatah-affiliated intelligence officer, and a Hamas military commander was assassinated two days later. Then, on Thursday evening, gunmen fired on a convoy carrying Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in what Hamas called an assassination attempt.
[On Sunday, in a dawn raid on a Gaza training camp, masked gunmen killed an officer of an elite force loyal to Abbas, Reuters reported.]
"Are there risks? Yes, there are risks," Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker and close Abbas adviser, said Saturday of early elections. "But the risks presented by these ugly incitements we have been seeing are much greater."
In his often tart speech, the usually mild-mannered Abbas outlined what amounted to an indictment of the Hamas leadership. Abbas began with his own January 2005 election following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and traced the territories' downward arc, warning of "a collapse in our social values."
Abbas said the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, doomed Gaza's economic prospects following the Israeli withdrawal last year by firing rockets into southern Israel. He said the brigades' June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, an event Hamas has celebrated as a victory, has resulted only in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in subsequent Israeli military operations.
In inviting Hamas to form the cabinet following its election victory, Abbas urged its leaders to adopt his governing principles, including the creation of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Hamas has refused to do so during months of talks to form a unity government, which has been announced several times only to founder behind the scenes over the details of its political program and which party would receive the key ministries. International donors have cut off aid to the government until Hamas recognizes the Jewish state, renounces violence and endorses previously signed international agreements backed by Fatah.
Abbas said Hamas has failed in its governing responsibility by refusing to compromise to end the sanctions, which have left 165,000 civil servants, nearly half of them members of the security services, with only a small fraction of their pay for months.
"We will not allow a civil war," Abbas said to applause. "We are committed, until the end, to the democratic process."