Hamas weighs proposals to ease isolation-officials

By Wafa Amr


RAMALLAH- The Hamas-led Palestinian government is weighing softening its stance toward Israel to ease isolation but not without concessions from the Jewish state and the international community, Hamas officials said on Thursday.



>They said ideas such as a 2002 Arab peace initiative, U.N. resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s national agenda — all of which include recognition of Israel — were on the table.


One expert on Hamas said any softening would not involve a shift in ideology, but be a way to try to get Western aid restored to the Palestinian Authority and heal a growing rift with President Mahmoud Abbas over government powers.


Deputy prime minister Naser al-Shaer, an influential leader of the Islamic militant group and who is close to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told Reuters that several ideas were being considered and would be discussed over the coming days.


“No decision has been taken yet,” Shaer said.


“It is very clear the world wants a certain political price or certain position from this government. What is this position, to what extent can this position be reached?”


Added Nayef al-Rajoub, minister of religious affairs: “We are studying and considering all kinds of proposals, including the Arab peace initiative … but that doesn’t mean we have accepted anything yet.”


Arab states have urged the government to accept the Arab initiative, which offers Israel peace in return for land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.


Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has rebuffed Western demands to recognise the Jewish state and disarm.


It has offered a long-term ceasefire on the condition Israel withdraws from land captured in 1967 and recognises the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now the Jewish state. Israel has dismissed that offer as a non-starter.


“We want to overcome this crisis but not without a price. We seek clear signs from Israel and the international community that they, in return, are serious about ending the crisis and agree to recognise the Palestinian people’s rights,” Shaer said.


Speaking to 1,500 teachers in Gaza on Thursday, Haniyeh remained defiant and vowed not to make any concessions.


Israel has cut ties with the Palestinian Authority and vowed not to negotiate with Hamas. It has dismissed previous hints from Hamas at a softer approach as “verbal gymnastics”.


“They have hinted at the possibility in the past and did not follow through … We do not need double talk,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.



HAMAS OPTIONS


The government has been challenged on all fronts. The finance minister has warned of economic collapse within months while wages to 165,000 government workers are one month overdue.


“Our options are a peace initiative that would fall short of direct recognition of Israel, cement ties with President Mahmoud Abbas to overcome world isolation, or go underground and end the truce with Israel,” said a third Hamas official, who declined to be identified.


“Whatever happens we will not allow the government to fail.”


Although Muslim countries have pledged money, Palestinian officials say banks have so far been unwilling to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority under threat of U.S. sanctions.


Political analyst Basem Izbidi, an expert on Hamas, said any softened position would be a manoeuvre to stay in power.


“Hamas has no other option but to strengthen ties with Abbas and allow him to pursue peace with Israel,” Izbidi said.



ABBAS’ OPTIONS


Tensions are already high with Abbas, especially over control of the security forces. Abbas is a moderate elected in 2005. Hamas trounced his Fatah movement in January elections.


“Confrontation between Abbas and the government is inevitable unless they change,” a senior aide to Abbas said.


Other aides said if the government could not pay salaries for another two months and if popular protests erupted, Abbas would ask it to step down and allow him to form a cabinet from technocrats with neither Fatah nor Hamas ministers represented.


On Monday, Abbas sent a sharp reminder to Hamas he had the power to dissolve the government, but said he did not want to do so and would give the group more time to embrace peacemaking.


Shaer said the government would never step down.


“The people will not turn against the Palestinian government. If the people go to the streets, we will join them,” he said.