Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said today that he will call snap presidential and parliamentary elections in the New Year if reconciliation talks with Hamas fail. But Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June of last year, swiftly rejected his threat, saying he had no powers to dissolve the current parliament in which they won a large majority in the last elections in 2006. The Palestinian president stressed that he remains committed to Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks with Hamas, which the group walked out of earlier this month after accusing his security forces of rounding up their supporters in the West Bank.
But he warned that If the dialogue was unsuccessful, "then at the start of next year we will issue a presidential decree calling parliamentary and presidential elections." It was not immediately clear what powers Mr Abbas, who is also PLO chairman, would use to dissolve parliament early. The Palestinian basic law does not give him that right as president of the Palestinian Authority, something that Hamas was quick to seize upon.
"The law does not give any authority to the president on parliament and nobody can dissolve it before" elections are due in 2010, a spokesman for the Hamas administration in Gaza, Taher al-Nunu, told AFP. "We hope the dialogue will succeed and that the president's office will create a conducive atmosphere by freeing the prisoners in the West Bank," he added. The Islamists accuse Mr Abbas's security forces of holding more than 600 of their elected officials and supporters in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Another Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, echoed Nunu's comments. "We reject the calling of the elections because it is illegal and unconstitutional," he told AFP. Mr Abbas's own term of office expires on January 8 and the Islamists had threatened to stop recognising his authority from the following day. The president's supporters have pointed to another provision in the Palestinian constitution which provides for simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections and which they say allows him to continue in office until 2010.
Mr Abbas read out to the PLO Central Council a draft agreement based on an Egyptian negotiating text which he said should serve as the basis for a new round of talks with Hamas. The draft provides for the "formation of a provisional government that is accepted by all the factions and which respects the programme of the PLO." The latter is a potential stumbling block for Hamas, which is not a member of the PLO and has never signed up to its acceptance of a two-state solution with Israel.
The draft also provides for "reform of the security forces on a professional and non-partisan basis," another key issue between Abbas and Hamas, which accuses him of stacking the security forces with his own loyalists. In a security assessment which is to be submitted to the Israeli cabinet next month, defence chiefs are urging ministers to avoid fresh Palestinian elections at all costs because of the risks of a new Hamas victory, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
The assessment recommends "preventing elections in the Palestinian Authority, even at the cost of a confrontation with the United States and the international community," the paper said. * AFP