Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might put off the formation of a unity government with the Islamic militant group Hamas to avoid alienating his Western allies ahead of a U.N. vote on statehood, a senior PLO official said Thursday.
Palestinian leaders apparently underestimated international opposition, particularly from the U.S., to any Hamas involvement in government and are afraid that will derail efforts to win the U.N. nod to establish a Palestinian state.
Abbas' Fatah Party and Hamas have been trying to end a four-year-rift that left the Palestinians with two rival governments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The division has been a major obstacle to the Palestinian goal of establishing an independent state in the two areas.
But the Palestinian president worries a unity government might be rejected by the West and does not want to wage two diplomatic battles _ for recognition of an alliance with the Islamic militants and for a U.N. nod to statehood _ at the same time, according to the PLO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Hamas officials said Thursday they have not received a formal request to put off talks on a government that began in May but have stalled because of disagreement over naming a prime minister.
Abbas said Thursday that negotiations are continuing, but he hinted at difficulties. "I hope that we will succeed, but it needs a little bit of effort," he told reporters during a visit to the Netherlands.
The PLO official said Abbas' priority is to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September. It would be a largely symbolic step the Palestinians hope will nonetheless improve their leverage against Israel. Abbas was in the Netherlands as part of an international tour to drum up support for recognition.
In recent weeks, unity talks focused on setting up an interim caretaker government that would pave the way for elections next year. Talks hit a snag because of disagreement over who should serve as prime minister. Abbas wants the prime minister of his West Bank-based government, Salam Fayyad, to stay on, while Hamas is vehemently opposed to the idea.
Keeping Fayyad in the job is seen by Abbas as the best chance of winning international acceptance of a unity government, a senior member of Abbas' Fatah movement, who also insisted on anonymity, said earlier this week.
Such approval, especially from the U.S., is far from certain since Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Washington and the European Union, continues to reject the three conditions for international acceptance _ recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and respecting previous agreements with Israel.
Abbas has tried to get around the problem by seeking to form a government of ostensibly apolitical experts approved by Hamas and Fatah. However, it's not clear if President Barack Obama's administration, which has been critical of Abbas' reconciliation with an unreformed Hamas, would accept such a constellation.
A senior U.S. official told Abbas earlier this month that a unity government would have to accept the three conditions _ a demand the militants are unlikely to meet. A British diplomat has posed similar conditions for acceptance.
Abbas argues that any future government would be committed to his moderate program, including the quest for a peace deal with Israel. However, it's not clear whether such assurances would be sufficient for the West.
The Fatah official said Abbas does not want to form a unity government only to have it boycotted by the West, and that he wants to avoid new complications while he is pursuing the U.N. option.
Contacts between Hamas and Fatah are continuing, the official said.
Palestinian officials say they are determined to go ahead with the U.N. campaign. Even if a U.S. veto prevents full membership of a state of Palestine, they expect to at least win an upgrade in the General Assembly to a nonmember observer state, from the PLO's current status of a nonmember "entity."
The U.N. drive is a result of frustration over moribund peace talks with Israel. Abbas feels he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do not share enough common ground to resume meaningful negotiations.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal bluntly rejected the idea of the Palestinian initiative going to the General Assembly, instead calling for a resumption of direction negotiations with the Israelis. "It will not be supported by the Netherlands," Rosenthal told reporters after meeting Abbas.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Netherlands contributed to this report.