AP Interview: Palestinian offers Hamas unity deal

The Palestinian prime minister appealed Sunday to the rival Hamas group to join him in a united government, offering to allow the Islamic militants to retain security control of the Gaza Strip until elections later this year.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's proposal to his Islamic militant rivals reflected the Palestinians' deep frustration over Washington's handling of Mideast peace efforts. That anger was underscored over the weekend when the U.S. vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Any partnership with the anti-Israel Hamas would likely draw international criticism and all but rule out hopes of reviving negotiations. The U.S., EU and Israel shun Hamas as a terror organization.

But with peace talks stalled for nearly four months and few hopes for getting them back on track, Fayyad's Western-backed government in the West Bank is now turning its focus to internal politics.

The Palestinian areas have been divided between two rival governments since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza nearly four years ago. Reunification is essential for the Palestinians, who hope to establish a state that includes both areas.

Fayyad said in an interview that the split has gone on too long. "We need to move to end the split," he told The Associated Press during a tour of the northern West Bank, where he inaugurated new schools and roads and condemned Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes it says are illegally built.

Fayyad's boss, President Mahmoud Abbas, announced earlier this month that he would hold long overdue parliamentary and presidential elections in September.

The move appeared to be motivated by pro-democracy protests erupting throughout the Middle East as well as the leak of secret negotiating documents to the Al-Jazeera TV station. Those documents showed that Abbas had offered generous concessions to Israel during past rounds of peace talks. The disclosures embarrassed Palestinian leaders.

Hamas has said it would boycott the elections unless there is reconciliation first. Abbas has since taken the view that elections could not be held without Gaza.

Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist who enjoys international respect, refused to say whether elections would be canceled. Instead, he said his focus is to work with Hamas to make the elections take place.

Fayyad acknowledged that many details need to be worked out, but he said that as long as Hamas continues to respect a cease-fire with Israel, all other areas of disagreement could be bridged.

Gaza militants have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel since a bruising Israeli invasion two years ago, but Hamas says splinter groups are largely responsible. Israel blames Hamas for all violence originating in Gaza.

While Abbas would remain president of all Palestinians until elections are held, Fayyad said Hamas could retain security control of Gaza under a unified government. He said other key details, such as who would be prime minister or be in charge of issues like education and social services, would have to be resolved in negotiations.

"If we agree on the concept that rules out violence to achieve our national goals, we are now ready to form a national unity government that rules in both the West Bank and Gaza," he said.

Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas sat together in a short-lived coalition after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006. The following year, that deal unraveled when forces loyal to Abbas were expelled from Gaza, leaving Hamas in control of the coastal territory.

During their partnership, the sides feuded over international demands for Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Hamas is still unlikely to accept those conditions. Its ideology does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East, though some Hamas figures have said they could accept a state only in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem as a temporary measure.

In Gaza, Hamas officials refused to comment on Fayyad's proposal, saying they needed more details.

Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group was concerned that Fayyad's call was just an empty political maneuver to embarrass Hamas.

Israeli officials did not immediately comment. Israel boycotted the previous Palestinian unity government. headed by a Hamas prime minister, and ceased all cooperation because of its refusal to explicitly acknowledge Israel's right to exist.

President Barack Obama personally launched the resumption of peace talks in September, only to see the negotiations break down three weeks later with the expiration of a limited Israeli freeze on settlement construction. The Palestinians say Israel is not negotiating in good faith if it continues to build homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas claimed by the Palestinians.

Fayyad angrily denounced Friday's U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council. The U.S., while saying it opposes the settlements, said the council was not the proper venue for resolving the dispute. The council's 14 other members voted in favor of the measure.

"The Americans have chosen to be alone in disrupting the internationally backed Palestinian efforts," Fayyad said.

Palestinian officials quoted Obama as telling them that if he had gone forward with the measure, Israel's supporters in Congress had threatened to withhold financial aid to the Palestinians.

"I found this offensive," Fayyad said. "We are not willing to compromise our national enterprise for a fistful of dollars, however big or small."

The Palestinians receive more than $200 million a year in direct financial assistance from the U.S., making Washington the largest individual donor to Fayyad's government.