The Palestinian foreign minister said Thursday an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could clear the way for long-delayed elections that would include militant groups -- a sign that power-sharing talks could give Islamic groups an official role, despite U.S. and Israeli misgivings.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a smaller pullback in the West Bank in the absence of peace moves. Though the Gaza pullout is not expected for up to a year, the prospect has led to a flurry of meetings among Palestinian factions and speculation about how strong the Islamic militant groups' influence would be afterward.
Israeli officials said Friday that Sharon has officially called for a referendum within his Likud Party on his withdrawal plan.
Sharon's request, lodged with the party Thursday night, means the vote will be held within the next three weeks under the ruling party's bylaws.
Sharon had initially said he would not call for the referendum until after he returned from a trip next week to Washington, where he will meet with President Bush in an effort to garner American backing for his plan.
But he decided to speed up the timetable to keep the momentum going from his Washington trip and to make it harder for the opposition within his hard-line party to organize, political sources said.
Sharon has said he will honor the outcome of the referendum. A recent poll showed a slim majority of Likud members supporting his proposal.
Hamas 'looking for partnership'
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Palestinians are "enthusiastic" about new elections after the Israelis leave.
"We hope this (withdrawal) will pave the road for a Palestinian general election with participation with Hamas," he told The Associated Press.
Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi did not rule out participation. "Hamas is looking for a real partnership, not a cosmetic one," he told reporters in Gaza at a Hamas rally protesting U.S. military action in Iraq.
Palestinians have had only one general election since the Palestinian Authority was set up in 1994. Hamas boycotted the 1996 voting, refusing to recognize the Palestinian Authority, set up in an interim peace accord with Israel. Hamas does not accept a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Israel and the United States have warned against a Hamas takeover of Gaza after an Israeli pullout.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombing attacks that have killed more than 450 Israelis during 3 1/2 years of conflict. On March 22, Israel assassinated the leader and founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and Hamas pledged bloody revenge.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, said Hamas is a terrorist group that should not be allowed into a governing role. "This is another effort by the Palestinian Authority to bypass the requirement to fight terrorism," he told The Associated Press. "This is not Hamas joining the PA. This is the PA joining Hamas."
The United States has put Hamas on its list of terror organizations.
"Our view is that, far from being welcomed into any partnership or cooperation, Hamas should be ostracized and disempowered as an organization," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said this week.
The U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan requires the Palestinians to dismantle violent groups like Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad, but Palestinian leaders have avoided a confrontation, fearing a civil war. Israel has also ignored its initial "road map" obligation -- stopping settlement construction -- and progress on implementing the plan has been stalled for months.
Shaath will hold talks with senior administration officials a week after Sharon's visit to Washington.
The Palestinians fear Sharon is giving up Gaza in order to tighten his hold on much of the West Bank. However, they also said they welcome any withdrawal.
Shaath told Israel Radio the Palestinians will demand that the United States do "nothing that will pre-empt a permanent settlement, neither on borders nor refugees or anything."
Shaath also said the Palestinians expect a large aid package from the United States and other donor countries to help rebuild Gaza after a pullback.
In the event of a Gaza withdrawal, "the Americans should be ready with the World Bank and other donors to make massive economic support for the Palestinian Authority," Shaath said. He did not give a sum.
The Palestinians, already heavily dependent on international aid, are hoping for more money to help rebuild an economy shattered in more than three years of fighting with Israel.
Shaath said the funds were needed for "relief, reconstruction, economic activities, labor and job creation, and others."
In another development, 10 ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths were arrested for assaulting Arabs in Jerusalem, police said Thursday.
The 10 were suspected of throwing rocks and assaulting Arab cab drivers during a drunken rampage on the Jewish festival of Purim last month.