JERUSALEM – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he would agree to talks with the militant Islamic group Hamas, an apparent about-face that reflects dwindling hope for a U.S.-brokered peace with Israel.
Hamas embraced the offer to end a year-old breach, a move that could jeopardize Israeli and Western support that props up Abbas’ more secular administration. Israel has said it would review its relationship with Abbas if he were to make amends with Hamas, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state.
Abbas dissolved a Hamas-led power-sharing government last June after the group seized control of the Gaza Strip from his Fatah forces. The rift left Abbas in charge of only the West Bank but freer to negotiate with Israel.
Since then, his standing among Palestinians has fallen as Israel has expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Hamas, meanwhile, has gained in popularity while continuing its armed attacks against the Jewish state.
The Palestinian leader opened a televised speech from the West Bank city of Ramallah by defending peace talks with Israel that were revived last November. But he complained that construction of settlements was undermining hope in President Bush’s goal of an accord by the time he leaves the White House.
Then, in a surprise announcement, he reached out to Hamas, the bitter adversary whose Gaza takeover he has denounced as a criminal act and a military coup.
“Let us hold a national and comprehensive dialogue … to end the national schism that has inflicted severe damage on our cause and more suffering on the Palestinian people” in Gaza, he said.
If talks with Hamas succeed, Abbas said, he would call early presidential and parliamentary elections, now scheduled for 2009 and 2010. He did not say when talks would begin, who would take part or whether Arab mediators would be involved.
Notably absent from the speech was any mention of his previous refusal to talk to Hamas unless the group submitted to his authority and gave up control of Gaza.
Jihad urged over Gaza Strip
Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader called on Muslims to launch a holy war to break Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, in an audio recording posted Wednesday on an Islamic militant Internet site.
In the 11-minute tape, a voice purportedly belonging to Ayman al-Zawahri says in Arabic that the “salvation of the Muslim nation is through the march of its sons on the path of jihad.”
An accompanying banner says the message was issued to mark the 41st anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, during which Egypt lost the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, Syria lost the Golan Heights and Jordan lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem.