GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The militant group Hamas said Wednesday it will put together the next Palestinian government by early March — timing that could help Israeli hawks in parliamentary elections.
Hamas officials said the group would stack top government positions with its own people, a move that could trigger an Israeli boycott of the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, Hamas nominated three members for senior legislative posts, including parliament speaker.
Hamas, which calls for the elimination of Israel, trounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party in legislative elections last month. With a solid majority in the incoming parliament, Hamas is poised to form a Cabinet in the coming weeks, severely impeding Abbas’ ability to pursue peace talks with Israel. The new parliament holds its first session Saturday.
Israeli leaders have taken a tough stance toward Hamas, ruling out any talks with the group until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and accepts existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert watchful on outcome
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in the Israeli election, said this week that “all contacts” with the Palestinians will be reviewed once Hamas takes office. He also has threatened to cut off monthly transfers of about $50 million in tax money to the cash-starved Palestinian government.
Israeli officials, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, met Wednesday evening to discuss future policy for dealing with Hamas. The talks focused on tax transfers and other financial issues, Livni’s office said. There was no word whether any decisions were made.
An Israeli newspaper quoted Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, as saying Israel wouldn’t deal with the Palestinians at all if Hamas taps its own people as prime minister and parliament speaker. Mofaz told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that if the two posts are filled by Hamas people, “we will not hold any talks with them.”
Hamas’ unexpected rise to power, and its refusal to renounce violence, has shaken the campaign for Israel’s March 28 elections.
Sharon party leads in polls
The Kadima Party, headed by Olmert since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke last month, has enjoyed a strong lead in opinion polls on a platform of territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
But Hamas’ success could benefit right-wing parties like Likud, which takes a hard line against the Palestinians. The party’s election slogans stress that only it can stand up to the Islamic militants.
In a TV interview Wednesday, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to rally international opposition to Hamas. “It is part of an international obstacle. We need to ensure our future with an experienced and responsible leadership that knows the job,” he told Channel 2 TV.
There had been indications Hamas would wait until after the Israeli elections to appoint a Cabinet, and there was widespread speculation the group might turn to independent candidates for top political posts.
Hamas may have Cabinet ‘in two weeks’
But on Wednesday, Ismail Haniyeh, widely seen as Hamas’ top candidate for prime minister, said a Cabinet would be in place soon.
“We will be ready in two weeks” from Saturday, he told The Associated Press. And officials said the government, including the prime minister, would be stacked with its members.
Wednesday’s appointments included Abdel Aziz Duaik, a geography professor from the West Bank, as speaker; Ahmed Bahar, a mosque preacher and operator of a charity in Gaza, as his deputy; and Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader from Gaza, as parliamentary faction leader.
In addition to his legislative powers, the speaker becomes caretaker president if the elected head of the Palestinian Authority dies.
Since Hamas controls 72 of 132 parliamentary seats, the appointments are expected to win approval easily.
Pledges peace initiative
Duaik said that once the new government is formed, Hamas would formulate its own peace plan, with a long-term truce with Israel as a centerpiece.
“I hope that after establishing the government ... we will sit down and have our own peace initiative,” he said. “The truce will be at the top of this initiative.”
Israeli officials have been cool to the idea of a truce, insisting Hamas disarm in order to join the diplomatic process.
“We will not negotiate and we will not deal with a Palestinian Authority that will be dominated in whole or in part by a terrorist organization,” Olmert told a meeting of American Jewish leaders Tuesday.
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