Abbas hints at new government

By Arshad Mohammed

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, bolstered by a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said today he might dissolve the Hamas-led government and unity talks with the group were dead.

Rice promised at a news conference with Abbas to "redouble ... efforts to improve the conditions of the Palestinian people" and press Israel to ease a closure of Gaza border crossings.

Abbas made clear his patience was running thin in efforts to persuade Hamas to soften its policy toward Israel and form a unity government with his Fatah faction which Palestinians hope can lead to an end to a Western aid embargo.

"If this doesn't happen in the near future, all options are open," he said at the news conference with Rice. "But the only option I reject is civil war."

Twelve Palestinians have been killed in fighting between rival factions over the past week, the worst internal violence in Gaza and the occupied West Bank in a decade.

In comments to reporters before he met Rice, Abbas said he would use his "constitutional powers" under Palestinian law at the appropriate time, a clear reference to a possible edict to dismiss the government and hold new elections.

"The dialogue now does not exist," Abbas said about talks with Hamas, which has rejected three Western demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals with the Jewish state.

Rice is on a regional visit partly aimed at bolstering the moderate Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas. The Islamist group, dedicated to Israel's destruction, defeated Fatah in January elections and formed a government in March.

Abbas's chief of staff said the president gave Rice a "working paper" to convey to Israel on ways to move toward a resumption of peacemaking and ease Israeli restrictions on Palestinian trade and travel.

Israel has kept Gaza crossing points largely closed since militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid from the territory in June. He is still being held.

Rice said she and Abbas had discussed ways to "make possible a life for the Palestinian people that is not subject to the kind of daily humiliations that we know have been associated with the occupation. That is my programme here."

She was to see Israeli Prime Minister Olmert later in the day. Olmert and Abbas have voiced a readiness to meet but set no date.

One senior Palestinian official who attended the meeting between Rice and Abbas told Reuters "there was a lot of talk on the next Palestinian government".

The official said Abbas wanted Hamas to agree to a political platform that satisfied the three Western demands.

"President Abbas told her he has given Hamas less than two weeks to give him an answer," the official said.

In Gaza, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accused Rice of serving "an American and Israeli agenda".

He called on Abbas "to avoid using the sword of time" by setting any deadlines in unity efforts.

"There is an elected Palestinian government which expresses the will of the Palestinian voter. However, we have said we do not have a problem to resume the dialogue to form a unity government," Haniyeh told reporters.

Prospects for renewed peacemaking with the Palestinians and concerns over Iran were likely to be high on the agenda of Rice's talks with Olmert, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Referring to Israeli fears that Iran could build a nuclear bomb, the spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, told reporters in Jerusalem: "The prime minister yesterday said this is the first time he honestly feels ... this is a threat to Israel's existence."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had "said that the Zionist entity should be annihilated", she noted.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is for energy needs.

- REUTERS

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