Abbas Asks Hamas for Compromise on Government

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday asked Hamas to form the next Palestinian government, but demanded that the Islamic militant group recognize existing peace deals and fall in line with his moderate policies, including negotiations with Israel.

Abbas made the demands in a speech to the new Hamas-dominated parliament after legislators were sworn in by collective oath.

Hamas controls 74 of 132 seats, but Abbas retains considerable power as Palestinian Authority president, controlling foreign affairs, security and peace negotiations.

Hamas quickly rebuffed Abbas, saying it would not negotiate with Israel. However, the group's choice for prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said Hamas is not seeking confrontation and will try to reach a compromise with Abbas.

Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction and has said it is not moderating its ways, despite international pressure and threats of tough Israeli sanctions, such a blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas legislator Abdel Aziz Duaik, a geography professor from the West Bank, was later elected speaker of the new Palestinian parliament.

He said the new parliament would quickly review the legality of "all decisions and decrees" made during the transition period after the Jan. 25 parliament election. Duaik did not elaborate.

However, last week, the outgoing parliament controlled by the defeated Fatah Party had approved the creation of a constitutional court that would give Abbas more power over a Hamas-led government.

Abbas has not decided whether he'd fire a Hamas prime minister who rejects his policies, his aides have said.

Israeli government officials declined comment Saturday.

Israel considered Saturday's swearing-in ceremony as a turning point, after which it will drastically scale back ties with the Palestinian Authority. On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet is to vote on sanctions against the Palestinians, including sealing Gaza, cutting off Gaza from the West Bank and keeping out thousands of Palestinian workers.

Saturday's parliament session was held simultaneously in the West Bank city of Ramallah and in Gaza City, because of Israeli travel bans. Legislators were hooked up by video conference.

In Gaza, some 2,000 diplomats and other VIPs gathered in a government complex to view the parliament session, along with about 100 women from the Hamas Women's Union, their faces covered by veils.

In Ramallah, Hamas lawmakers entered the main hall in Abbas' headquarters in a group, one carrying a picture of jailed lawmaker Hassan Yousef. The group's female lawmakers covered their heads in traditional Muslim fashion.

Abbas said in his opening speech that a new reality has been created by the Hamas victory in last month's parliament election and the defeat of his Fatah Party.

"Therefore, it (Hamas) will be asked to form the new government," Abbas said. "On my part, you will find all the cooperation and encouragement you need, because our national interest is our first and final goal, and is above any individual faction."

Abbas asked Hamas to put together the government as quickly as possible, and to name its candidate for prime minister. Hamas said its choice is the group's pragmatic Gaza leader, Haniyeh, who in the past served as a liaison with the Palestinian Authority. However, no formal announcement has been made and the group has five weeks to form the next Cabinet.

Duaik got 70 votes to become speaker in the 132-member legislature. The outgoing speaker, Rauhi Fattouh of the defeated Fatah Party, handed him the gavel, to cheers and applause from Hamas lawmakers.

The speaker's job is important because he would assume the job of president for 60 days if the incumbent dies or is incapacitated.

The parliament later elected two deputy speakers and a secretary general.

Abbas, who was elected separately last year for a four-year term on a platform of non-violence and continued peace negotiations, warned the militants they must recognize the interim autonomy agreements with Israel, known as the Oslo Accords.

Abbas said he respects freedom of expression. "But we have not and will not accept any questioning of the Accords' legitimacy," he said. "Indeed, from the hour they were endorsed, they became a political reality to which we remain committed."

He also said a future Palestinian government would have to fall in line with his policies. "We, as presidency and government, will continue our commitment to the negotiating process as the sole political, pragmatic and strategic choice through which we reap the fruit of our struggle and sacrifices over long decades," he said.

Turning to Israel, Abbas said he wants to restart peace talks quickly, based on the U.S.-backed "road map" plan which envisions a Palestinian state alongside Israel. "Let us together make peace today, rather than tomorrow," Abbas said. "Let us live in two neighboring states."

Hamas legislators quickly rejected Abbas'. Negotiations with Israel are "not on our agenda," said Mushir al-Masri, a leading Hamas legislator.

Haniyeh said he hoped a compromise could be reached, despite conflicting views.

"We will deal with this difference in the political position ... through dialogue and understanding, to preserve the national unity of the Palestinian people and promote the higher interests of our people," he said.

Israel, the United States and the European Union, which provide funding for a majority of the Palestinian Authority's budget, have threatened to sever financial ties with the government if Hamas does not renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas is branded a terrorist group by the United States and Europe.

Israel also was considering sanctions against the Palestinian Authority and its Cabinet will vote Sunday on measures meant to put a stranglehold on the Hamas parliament. The moves would devastate the already frail Gaza economy, though Israel would continue to let humanitarian shipments cross into the coastal area.

Israel also was likely to freeze the transfer of roughly $55 million in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority each month. The Palestinian government relies on that money to provide a significant portion of the funds needed to pay its 140,000 workers.

The legislature comprises 74 Hamas lawmakers and 45 from Fatah. The rest of the parliament is made up of independents and representatives of smaller parties.

The Hamas victory last month was mostly considered the result of Palestinian anger and frustration with the corruption-riddled Fatah Party, which had dominated Palestinian life for more than four decades.