Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Photo by Reuters
Text size

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Wednesday that he would not seek re-election when polls are held in an expected six months.

In a speech given to political allies, Abbas said that that he is willing to travel to the Gaza Strip to promote reconciliation between his Fatah faction the rival Hamas movement, and form a united government. Hamas welcomed the offer.

"Elections cannot take place if the West Bank and Gaza don't first unite," the Palestinian president said.

On Tuesday, Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had invited Abbas to visit following parallel rallies in Gaza and the West Bank urging the rival Palestinian leaderships to reunite.

The next day, the Palestinian leader announced that he would be prepared to make the trip within the coming week.

"I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow so as to end the split and form a new government," Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah Party.

He urged Haniyeh to make arrangements so he could arrive within the next two to four days, "so we can end this dark and dishonorable chapter of division."

Hamas swiftly welcomed Abbas' offer. Spokesman Taher Nunu said the Hamas government was considering the necessary arrangements for this visit.

Muhammad Al Hindi, a leader of Islamic Jihad, Gaza's other main militant faction, urged the two parties to "translate this good will into practical steps to end the political split and unify our people."

Hamas and Fatah established rival governments in June 2007 after Hamas violently overran Gaza, ridding it of Fatah supporters. Since then, Abbas' Fatah party has controlled only the West Bank, and reconciliation attempts have repeatedly failed.

On Tuesday, a mass grass-roots protest took place in both the West Bank and Gaza, with residents taking to the streets to call for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

The rallies, led by young, disaffected Palestinians, combined with the wave of unrest sweeping through the region, has put heavy pressure on both leaders to resolve their differences.

The rift is a major obstacle to the Palestinians' dreams to establish an independent state incorporating both territories. Paradoxically, perhaps, Abbas' outreach to Hamas might reflect his loss of faith in the U.S.-backed peace process with Israel.

In the past, Abbas has shunned Hamas, which both the U.S. and Israel consider a terror group, in an effort to keep peacemaking alive.

Despite the outward signs of goodwill, the road to reconciliation promises to be rocky - and might lead nowhere. Past reconciliation efforts have failed, with neither side eager to relinquish the power it has.

Last month, Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, appealed to Hamas to join him in a united government, going so far as to propose that the group retain security control of Gaza until elections. Hamas rejected the offer.

Bringing Hamas back into the Palestinian Authority would likely imperil the huge amounts of American and European aid that the government depends on.

That aid was withheld in the past when Hamas was part of the government because it refused to recognize Israel, renounce its violent campaign against it or accept previous accords between Israel and the Palestinians. There is no sign Hamas would be willing to do any of those things now.

Abbas' plan for unity includes a call for parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. In his speech, Abbas told his Fatah allies that he would not run for re-election in that vote. He had said before he would step down after his current term.

It remains unclear, however, whether the elections will be held. In January, Abbas said he would hold elections by September but he later backpedaled to say elections could not be held until the West Bank and Gaza are reconciled.

Abbas' term expired a year ago, but he had consistently held off scheduling new elections because of turmoil inside Fatah and the growing strength of Hamas in the West Bank.