Arab League FMs urge Abbas to stay in office

Syrian representative clashes with Palestinian and Egyptian delegates over Hamas at Cairo meeting.

The Arab League foreign ministers on Thursday called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term expires on January 9, to stay in office until the dispute between Fatah and Hamas is resolved and until new elections are held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The call came at the end of a stormy meeting of the Arab ministers in Cairo to discuss the crisis on the Palestinian arena and ways of ending the Hamas-Fatah dispute. The ministers also decided to send food and medicine to the Gaza Strip and to allow patients from there to receive medical treatment in Arab countries. The ministers called on Abbas to "continue assuming his responsibilities as head of the Palestinian Authority." The ministers' call to Abbas to remain in power was received with a sigh of relief in the PA president's Mukata compound. Hamas, on the other hand, expressed disappointment with the results of the meeting and accused the Arab foreign ministers of failing to do anything to end the blockade on the Gaza Strip. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, head of the Palestinian delegation to the Cairo meeting, described the results as "positive and good." He noted that the majority of the ministers supported Egypt's efforts to end the Fatah-Hamas rift and stressed the need to end the power struggle between the two parties. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official and close adviser to Abbas, said the results reflected the "spirit of Arab responsibility toward the Palestinian cause." He added that the results were tantamount to a vote of confidence in Abbas's leadership and personality. During the meeting, a heated exchange erupted between Erekat and the head of the Syrian delegation, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. The two reportedly shouted at each other after the Syrian minister made sarcastic remarks about Abbas's government in the West Bank. The Syrian minister also reportedly enraged Erekat by calling for the participation of Hamas in future meetings of the Arab League. Another altercation erupted between the Syrian minister and his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Abul Gheit, who blamed Hamas for the failure of the Egyptian mediation efforts. The ministers reiterated their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and accused Israel of pursuing its "aggression" against the Palestinians. Abbas on Thursday called on the Israeli public to accept the peace plan, which he said was the most "precious" thing offered by the Arab and Islamic worlds. He said the plan was a rare opportunity that should be seized by Israel. Israel, he added, could live in an "ocean of peace" if it accepted the peace offer. Abbas was speaking to reporters in Bethlehem after meeting with the Italian president. Also Thursday, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad called for imposing economic sanctions on the settlements in the West Bank. Addressing Palestinian diplomats in Ramallah, Fayad said it was not enough to "protest" against the settlements and that the diplomats must take real measures to rally support for the Palestinian position vis-à-vis the "illegal" settlements.