Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he might resign if the government formed after a Jan. 25 parliament elections opposes his policies, including peace talks with Israel.
The militant Hamas group, which calls for the destruction of Israel and has carried out scores of deadly attacks against Israel in recent years, was expected to pose a strong challenge to Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party in the election and earn a spot in the next government.
A coalition government with Hamas would make it difficult for the two sides to restart long-frozen peace efforts.
“If I feel that I can’t fulfill this program ... then the seat is not my ultimate ambition,” Abbas told reporters at his office, referring to his post as Palestinian Authority president.
However, he held out hope that regardless of the election results, he would be able to pursue his peace plans.
“Who knows, Hamas may change its policy,” Abbas said.
Abbas spoke a day after acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that after the Palestinian poll and Israel’s March 28 election he hoped to begin negotiations leading to “a permanent peace agreement between us and the Palestinians.”
Olmert said he would only resume negotiations if Abbas dismantles militant groups after the vote.
Abbas enthusiastically welcomed Olmert’s overture but did not address a possible crackdown.
“We will not hesitate to get into such a negotiation,” Abbas said. “The way to peace is to sit together at the negotiation table, not the path of killings and unilateral actions.”
Politics on both sides in flux
However, the political situation on both sides is in flux.
Fatah, plagued by corruption allegations, has been falling in the polls, while Hamas has gained support with its clean government campaign. Palestinian areas also have grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, calling into question Abbas’ control of his government and his ability to follow through on any commitments he might make in peace talks.
Local leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Gaza said Wednesday they would cooperate to prevent violence on election day. They also said they would work together after the election.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained in a coma Wednesday after suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4, less than three months before elections that his new Kadima Party was expected to win. With Sharon incapacitated, Olmert was seen as his likely heir.
Olmert made a series of new Cabinet appointments Wednesday to fill empty posts in a temporary government that will serve until the election. The positions were left vacant after the Labor Party pulled out of the government late last year and Likud ministers resigned Sunday.
In the new Cabinet, made up wholly of Kadima members, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also will be foreign minister. Transport Minister Meir Sheetrit also will be education minister and lawmakers Roni Bar-On, Zeev Boim and Yaakov Edri will join the Cabinet as new ministers.
Several ministers said they did not expect Abbas to crack down on militants after the vote.
“He states explicitly that he will not do this. Thus, it’s difficult to say when the negotiations on a final arrangement can start,” Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio.
Israel has protested Hamas’ participation in the election and barred all militant groups from campaigning in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, plainclothes Israeli police broke up an east Jerusalem press conference by candidates from the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, detaining seven party officials.
The PFLP, a small militant group, was behind several deadly attacks on Israel in recent years, including the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.