RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that he is ready to honor the security commitments in an internationally backed peace plan, and a Hamas leader said the violent Islamic group does not seek to eliminate the Jewish state.
Sheik Hassan Yousef, Hamas' top official in the West Bank, also held out the possibility of a cease-fire with Israel.
"Hamas doesn't want to eliminate Israel. Hamas (search) is a realistic political movement," Yousef said, in a marked departure from the group's previous calls for the Jewish state's destruction.
Abbas, elected earlier this week to replace the late Yasser Arafat (search), said he is eager to restart talks on the "road map," a peace plan backed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
The plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, has been stalled since it was launched in mid-2003 amid violations by both sides. The road map requires Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, while Palestinians must dismantle militant groups.
"We emphasize before you that we are committing to the road map," Abbas said after a meeting with local and international Christian leaders.
"As you know, this plan starts with security commitments and eventually deals with the final status issues, like borders and Jerusalem. We are ready to implement our commitments. We hope the Israeli side will do the same," he added.
Abbas did not specify what sort of security measures he is ready to take, but securing a cease-fire promise from Hamas would give him a boost. He has rejected Israeli calls to confront militants, trying instead to co-opt them.
Abbas will have a difficult time moving forward without an agreement with the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad (search).
In public, the groups have rejected calls for a cease-fire but have signaled they are open to the idea if Abbas can guarantee their safety from Israel. Abbas also appears to have wide public support from a Palestinian public weary from more than four years of fighting with Israel.
Acknowledging the new political landscape, Yousef, the Hamas leader said the group might reconsider its violent tactics, though he said no decision has been made.
"We read the regional and the international reality and the changes that have taken place based on this reality, and we take positions according to these changes," he said Thursday.
Nabil Amr, an Abbas confidant, said the Palestinian leader has been in contact with Hamas. "The signs that are coming from Hamas after the election are positive and indicate that they recognize the results of the election," he said.
The official ideology of Hamas does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. However, its founders and leaders have said in the past that while they would not make peace with Israel, they would accept a temporary Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the framework of a long-term cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week called Abbas, the first direct contacts between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since 2003, and said he expected talks on security matters to begin soon.
Abbas is to be sworn into office on Saturday. He said that soon after he forms a new government "there will be contacts with Israel that will start with calm and security, and then move to the other issues."
Sharon, who shunned Arafat, has said he would be willing to coordinate his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the new Palestinian leadership. The withdrawal initially was proposed as a unilateral initiative after the road map fizzled.
Sharon this week formed a new coalition government with the dovish Labor Party to bolster support for the withdrawal, which is to begin in July.
Sharon met Thursday with the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (search) in a bid to broaden his coalition further. Sharon's office said the two men would meet again next week and decide whether to open formal negotiations.
Sharon has been trying to expand his government to neutralize "rebels" in his Likud Party who oppose the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Abbas called Labor's inclusion in the Israeli government a "good sign," adding that he hopes the Gaza withdrawal will be the first step toward carrying out the road map.
Since Arafat died on Nov. 11, there has been a drop in fighting, although violence has continued.
On Thursday, Israeli troops shot at a car in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing the driver. The man had been driving his pregnant neighbor to give birth at a hospital.
At the time, soldiers were conducting an arrest raid in Beit Lahiya. The army said soldiers opened fire because the car headed toward them and the driver ignored calls to stop.
The driver was taking the woman and her husband to the hospital, doctors said. The husband was moderately wounded with a gunshot wound to the shoulder, they said. The woman gave birth to a boy shortly after the incident.
Also in Gaza, Israeli troops killed a 24-year-old Palestinian gunman near the Bureij refugee camp, Palestinian hospital and security officials said. The man belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group.
The army said the gunman approached troops before he was shot.