RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday called for renewed dialogue with Hamas, in what appeared to be an about-face after insisting for a year he would talk to the Islamic militants only if they give up control of Gaza.
Hamas, which seized Gaza by force last year, immediately welcomed Abbas' offer, made in a televised speech.
However, Abbas gave no details about a future dialogue, including whether he himself would participate or seek mediation from Arab states. It was also not clear from his wording whether he had dropped all preconditions. If Abbas were to start talking to Hamas, he could jeopardize the broad international support he gained after Hamas' Gaza takeover.
Abbas spoke after months of peace talks with Israel have yielded no tangible results. Earlier Wednesday, his chief negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, said it would take a miracle to meet the year-end target for a deal set by President Bush. At the same time, Hamas appears increasingly entrenched in Gaza, despite a blockade by Israel and Egypt that has virtually cut off the territory from the world and driven its 1.4 million residents deeper into poverty.
A close Abbas aide, Nimer Hamad, said circumstances dictate a dialogue now.
"The failure of the peace process, the tragic situation in Gaza, the entire Palestinian situation required thinking courageously of an exit," Hamad said. "We hope that Hamas will respond positively to the call."
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu welcomed Abbas' offer. "We welcome this call by the President Abbas to launch a national dialogue, and we consider it a positive step," he said.
Abbas delivered the speech Wednesday evening, starting off by criticizing Israel for continued construction in West Bank settlements and other unilateral acts he said are dampening peace hopes.
Referring to the previous attempts to bridge the internal Palestinian rift, he called for "national dialogue to implement the Yemeni initiative in all its elements, to end the internal division that harms our people, (our) cause."
Abbas said if the talks succeed, "I will call for new legislative and presidential elections." Abbas won an election to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, but Hamas swept his Fatah movement out of power in 2006 parliament elections.
Abbas' speech came a year after Hamas seized control of Gaza by force, ousting his security forces. In response, Abbas fired the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and appointed a government of moderates in the West Bank.
Over the past year there have been several efforts, notably by Egypt and later by Yemen, to repair the rift between the two rivals, but to no avail.
Lack of apparent progress in peace talks with Israel has also troubled the Palestinian leader.
Earlier this week, Abbas had a particularly tense meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two leaders spent much of the time complaining — Abbas about continued construction in Israeli settlements, and Olmert about Palestinian attempts to prevent the EU from granting Israel closer ties.
The internal division has weakened the Palestinian negotiating position. Israel has also said that no deal could be implemented as long as Hamas rules Gaza.
Hamas has persistently rejected calls by Israel and the West to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace deals. Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Hamas and other militant groups have stepped up rocket attacks on Israeli border communities.