abbas stern 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Mahmoud Abbas is inclined to seek new elections if talks with Hamas militants on forming a moderate government do not produce results in about two weeks, a top aide to the PA chairman said.
Abbas has been trying to end a punishing aid cutoff by setting up a government acceptable to the West, either in a power-sharing arrangement between Hamas and his Fatah movement, or by appointing independent technocrats. However, Hamas has balked at demands that it recognize Israel, and no solution to the deadlock has emerged.
Independent legislator Mustafa Barghouti, who has been shuttling between the two sides, said Thursday that an agreement on a new government is close, but he would not disclose details. "We have made good progress. We are almost there," Barghouti said after meeting with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Barghouti later met Abbas to brief him on his five hours of talks with Haniyeh and told reporters the two men had also spoken directly by phone.
He said tentative agreement has been reached on a political program acceptable to the West. However, negotiations have broken down in the past, despite upbeat forecasts.
The head of Abbas' office, Rafiq Husseini, said the Palestinian leader still hopes to reach a solution. But if negotiations fail, Abbas "feels instinctively that the best thing for him to do is to go back to his people," meaning a new election, Husseini said in an interview at the presidential headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Under the Palestinians' Basic Law, Abbas cannot call an early election. However, he could try to get around that by holding a referendum on early elections. Hamas was elected in parliament elections in January, and the next vote is not due for another three years. Abbas was elected separately in 2005.
Abbas aides, speaking privately, have said the Palestinian leader has set a two-week deadline for wrapping up negotiations with Hamas. Husseini confirmed that Abbas has given a time frame.
"The president does not like lengthy negotiations, lengthy discussions ... and therefore he has to put deadlines," Husseini said. "I think everybody is talking about a deadline of a couple of weeks ... and I think this must be true."
Still, Abbas' low-key leadership style makes it unlikely he will seek a showdown with Hamas. In the past, he has repeatedly backed down from such confrontations.
In other developments Thursday, Israeli attack helicopters, tanks and ground troops tightened their grip on the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, killing an elderly civilian, two militants and a police officer on the second day of Israel's biggest push in months to stop Palestinian rocket fire.
Palestinian hospital officials said another four militants were killed and several wounded in airstrikes after nightfall. The military said aircraft targeted rocket launch sites in the area.
On Wednesday, 10 Palestinians were killed in Beit Hanoun and scores wounded, many of them militants battling Israeli forces. Hospital officials said a four-year-old boy wounded in Wednesday's shooting died early Friday morning.
The Israeli army said more than one-third of the 800 rockets fired at Israel in recent months were launched from Beit Hanoun.
At a Hamas rally after nightfall Thursday in Gaza City, Haniyeh called the Israeli offensive "terrorism."
Despite the offensive, militants fired six rockets at Israel from northern Gaza on Thursday, the military said. Two Israelis were slightly wounded and a house was damaged.
A Western diplomat, meanwhile, said he expected new security arrangements to be in place at the Karni cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, the coastal strip's main lifeline, before the end of the year.
The U.S.-backed arrangements, including new scanners, European monitors and deployment of elite Palestinian forces, are to prevent closures of Karni over security threats. In recent months, Karni has been closed down repeatedly by Israel amid warnings of possible attacks by Palestinian militants.
Last week militants smuggled high explosives through the crossing. They were intercepted on the Israeli side, the military said.