Hamas wooed with talk of Cabinet role

Militants' willingness to be involved in Palestinian government not assured

The World

July 02, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made overtures to the Islamic militant group Hamas about joining his Cabinet in the near future, Palestinian officials said yesterday.

Hamas has not yet said whether it would accept such an invitation. However, the group has made clear in recent months its interest in mainstream electoral politics and its intention to field candidates in parliamentary balloting this year.

Those elections, originally scheduled for mid-July, are now expected sometime after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which is scheduled to begin in mid-August.

The idea of approaching Hamas to participate in the government prior to those elections has been raised in several recent sessions of Abbas' Fatah faction, Palestinian officials said, including at current talks in Amman, Jordan.

Fatah's Central Committee, which sets the movement's policy, is meeting in the Jordanian capital to accommodate exiled leaders such as Farouk Kaddoumi, a Palestine Liberation Organization hard-liner who refuses to enter the Palestinian territories because he would have to submit to Israeli border formalities.

"The spirit of this meeting involves participation of all Palestinian factions in a national unity government," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian deputy prime minister and the minister of information.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said that Hamas would announce its position on joining the government "at a suitable time."

Palestinian and Israeli media reports said Hamas had previously demanded that Abbas set up a special authority to oversee the transfer of Gaza, which would include the militant group, but the Palestinian leader had refused.

Israeli plans call for pulling out of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four smaller ones in the northern West Bank.

At the Amman talks, Fatah officials are also reportedly weighing candidates, including Kaddoumi, for the position of deputy to Abbas. The Palestinian Authority president endorsed the idea of having a deputy after undergoing a heart procedure last month.

Hamas, which scored strongly in municipal elections held over the past several months in the West Bank and Gaza, is expected to do well in parliamentary balloting.

Last week, respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told reporters that the latest numbers indicated that the group could easily win a third of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Both Hamas and Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip said that Hamas might be willing to accept Cabinet positions in advance of the pullout in order to help ensure that the handover of Gaza, where the group has influence, goes smoothly.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been locked for months in a dispute over how Abbas ought to deal with Hamas. The group's militant wing carried out dozens of suicide bombings during more than four years of fighting, and it has never abandoned an ideology that calls for the destruction of Israel. Hamas has declined to take part in the Palestinian government, citing objections to the interim peace accords that brought the Palestinian Authority into being.

On the Israeli side, polls yesterday suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is again rallying public support for his Gaza pullout plan. A survey published in yesterday's editions of the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot indicated that support for Sharon's plan had climbed to 62 percent. A separate poll in the Maariv newspaper said 54 percent backed the withdrawal.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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