Abbas to call early elections

RAMALLAH, West Bank — RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he planned to call early presidential and parliamentary elections, a risky move aimed at replacing the Hamas-led government and clearing the way for peace talks with Israel.

Hamas warned that any such step would be illegal and would meet resistance, raising the stakes in a months-long and often violent conflict over control of the Palestinian Authority.


"We will not allow any coup against this government," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

Under pressure at home and abroad to take decisive action, Abbas disclosed his intention during a closed session of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, participants in the meeting said. But he withheld a formal announcement.


He left the door open to compromise with Hamas, saying that there was still time for the Iranian-backed Islamic movement to hand power voluntarily to a multiparty "unity government" acceptable to Israel and the West. But he said he would no longer take part in negotiations with Hamas on the issue, which broke off early this month.

Hamas won control of parliament and the Cabinet after unseating Abbas' more moderate Fatah Party in January elections. That prompted economic sanctions by Israel and Western nations, including the United States, which demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

As economic hardship worsened in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Abbas began pressing Hamas six months ago to give way to a unity government. The sanctions have left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 employees, leading to frequent labor strikes and armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas.

Yesterday, at least 1,400 Palestinian policemen demanding their paychecks stormed the grounds of the parliament building in Gaza City and exchanged gunfire with a Hamas-led contingent of guards. Two guards were slightly wounded. In the West Bank city of Hebron, dozens of parents carrying infants broke into a mother-and-child clinic that had been closed by a health workers' strike.

The conflict has frustrated a recent push by the Bush administration to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a six-year hiatus. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered this month to hold talks with Abbas if the Palestinians install a government that recognizes the Jewish state and if a captive Israeli soldier is freed.

But Abbas told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this month that efforts to form a unity government had hit a dead end because Hamas insisted on keeping control of the police and the treasury.

Abbas summoned the PLO committee, an advisory group, to guide his next steps. Participants in yesterday's meeting said he accepted its recommendation to call parliamentary elections early next year, three years ahead of schedule, and decided after lengthy debate to put his own job on the line as well. Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year presidential term.

The move would be a gamble for Abbas because it is far from certain that he and his party could win elections, or even conduct them if Hamas is violently opposed.


Hamas' popularity has slipped since it took office, but Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, remains divided and tarnished by corruption during the rule of Yassir Arafat.

In its initial reaction to yesterday's decision, Hamas indicated that it would boycott any new elections. Hamas spokesmen contended that Abbas has no authority to call elections early; aides to the president said that because Palestinian law does not address the issue, he is free to do so.

An aide to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said yesterday that Hamas preferred to resume negotiations on a unity government. "The door is still open because this is the best and safe alternative for all of us," the aide, Ahmed Yousef, told the Arabic satellite television station Al-Jazeera.

On Friday, tens of thousands of Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza City to demand that Haniyeh remain prime minister in any unity government.

Richard Boudreaux and Maher Abukhater write for the Los Angeles Times.