RAMALLAH, West Bank, (AP) – A top PLO body gave preliminary approval Thursday for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call early presidential and legislative elections.
Such a vote would further inflame tensions between Abbas, of the Fatah party, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which took control of Gaza by force last month. Hamas, which won parliament elections in 2006, opposes a new vote.
Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas’ hardline wing, 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 said in the Gaza Strip.
With Hamas in a position to stop voting in Gaza, the balloting would only take place in the West Bank, cementing the division between the two territories the Palestinians want for a future state.
It remains unclear whether Abbas is serious about holding a new vote or simply trying to pressure Hamas and isolate it further.
The beleaguered Abbas, who installed a West Bank-based emergency government of moderates after the Gaza takeover, hopes to strengthen his legitimacy with new elections, but the risks are high.
Hamas could try to disrupt voting in the West Bank, and there is no guarantee Abbas’ Fatah movement would win, even in its West Bank stronghold. Fatah was ousted in 2006 because of widespread voter misgivings over corruption and mismanagement, and the party has failed to carry out internal reforms.
If Abbas moves forward with elections, they would likely be held late this year or early next year.
Abbas aides said Abbas would run for president again, even though polls indicate his popularity is low and that he’d be neck-and-neck with Hamas’ most popular politician, Ismail Haniyeh, who was deposed by Abbas as prime minister after the Gaza takeover.
In a speech Wednesday, Abbas asked the PLO’s Central Council, a top decision-making body, to endorse his call for early elections.
On Thursday, a resolution put together by the council’s drafting committee asked Abbas to hold new elections, according to the head of the committee, Saleh Rafat. The resolution, to be represented to the Fatah-dominated council later Thursday, was likely to the adopted.
The draft resolution also asked Hamas to reverse the Gaza takeover, and leave the positions of the Abbas-allied security forces it had stormed in five days of bloody battle.
After the Gaza takeover, Abbas fired the Hamas-led government, imposed a state of emergency and installed a Cabinet of moderates. Hamas has accused him of violating the Palestinian constitution, a charge he denies.
Abbas’ announcement came as the United States and other international mediators were moving swiftly to try to revive Mideast peace efforts.
On Thursday, the “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers — EU, U.N. U.S. and Russia — was meeting in Portugal with its newly appointed emissary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The meeting was to follow up on President Bush’s call this week for a peace conference in the autumn. Abbas said the conference, to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should address the core issues of Israel’s borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Israel has welcomed the movement to revive peace efforts that stalled in 2000, but has been reluctant to deal with the conflict’s toughest issues as long as violence continues and Hamas — which rejects Israel’s legitimacy as a nation — remains a political factor.
Also Thursday, a senior Israeli military official said Hamas has smuggled 20 tons of explosives into Gaza in the past month, significantly improving its ability to carry out attacks on Israel. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military policy, said Israel should take military action within the next year or two to counter the Hamas threat.