The Palestinian Authority on Sunday offered to form a unity government with the rival Hamas militant group, in hopes of paving the way for national elections later this year.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad indicated that should Hamas accept its proposal, the PA would not interfere in the Islamist movement's reign over the Gaza Strip pending elections.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignation of his entire cabinet last week, assigning Fayyad with the task of forming a new cabinet.
The move was in part motivated by the recent leak of documents by Al Jazeera on the negotiations between Israel and the PA, as well as developments in Egypt, and came with a pledge to hold Palestinians elections before September of this year.
Fayyad hinted Sunday that he was interested in including Hamas in the future cabinet, in a proposal that seemed to leave much of the status quo in place for the time being.
Hamas would thus retain security control in Gaza under his proposal as long as it preserved a cease-fire with Israel. Fayyad would continue to govern from the West Bank, and would work with Hamas to place both territories under a single governing authority.
"The split has been too long and should not continue, and it won't end by itself. We need to move to end the split," Fayyad said.
Fayyad refused to say who might lead the unity government, saying this would have to be worked out in negotiations. He said that as long as Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, agrees to maintain calm, all other issues could be resolved.
In Gaza, Hamas officials refused to comment, saying they needed more details on Fayyad's plan.
Any unity government would likely end any hopes of reviving Mideast peace talks. Israel and the international community have said there will be no dealings with Hamas until it formally renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank appear willing to take this risk, saying they have little faith the U.S. can revive negotiations in any case.
Commenting last week on the Palestinian Authority's announcement of an upcoming vote, Hamas, which has sour relations with Abbas, said it would not take part in the ballot or recognize the results - a decision that will make it hard for Abbas to stage a credible vote.
Abbas' credibility has been sapped by stalled talks with Israel on a deal to establish an independent state, and the Palestinians have increasingly taken steps to build international consensus in an attempt to pressure Israel into making concessions.
Most recently, the Palestinian president was badly discredited by a U.S. block of an Abbas-initiated UN draft resolution condemning Israel's settlement construction. While 14 of the 15 UN Security Council members voted in favor of the condemnation, the United States used its veto power to block the proposal altogether.
Following the veto, the Palestinian Authority was reportedly intent on calling an emergency session of the UN General Assembly to condemn Israel later this week. That resolution is expected to pass easily.
Obama spoke with Abbas for 50 minutes on Thursday to urge the Palestinian president not to bring the resolution to a vote. According to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, Obama told Abbas that the resolution could damage U.S. interests in the Middle East and could induce the U.S. Congress to halt aid to the PA.
Obama reportedly suggested that in lieu of bringing the resolution to a vote, Abbas accept an alternative package of benefits, including a presidential statement on the settlements by the Security Council. Such a statement would be nonbinding, but could be couched in harsher terms.
The package would also have included a Security Council visit to Ramallah to express support for the PA and denounce the settlements, and a statement by the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers that, for the first time, would call for the boundaries of the Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 lines.
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