In a largely symbolic show of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,the Palestine Liberation Organization's highest legislative body unanimously elected him on Sunday as president of a future state, a post held previously by the late Yasser Arafat.
Earlier Sunday, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal suggested in a speech at the opening session of a Palestinian conference that Abbas was a merchant selling Palestinians' rights, after the rival militant group denounced the president for publishing Hebrew-language newspaper ads outlining a proposed Arab peace deal in Israeli papers.
Meshal did not mention the president by name in the speech, in which he said: "Our people's legitimate rights are not goods to be marketed, and national leaders are not merchants who announce their goods through paid ads in Israeli newspapers.
Palestinian rights, he added, can only be regained through resistance, not advertisements. The full-page ad published by Abbas in three Hebrew-language newspapers this week explained to Israelis that a withdrawal from Palestinian territories would bring full recognition by the Arab world - in line with a peace initiative first proposed in 2002 and relaunched at an Arab summit last year.
Abbas defended himself against the accusations, saying: "I do not succumb to the Israeli-American veto. I do what is in the interest of the Palestinian people."
The ad says 57 Arab and Muslim countries would establish diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from lands Palestinians seek for an independent state, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and parts of Jerusalem.
In his speech, the Damascus-based Meshal also criticized continued contact between Abbas and Israeli leadership despite ongoing Israeli crimes in Gaza and settlement building in the West Bank.
Hamas and Abbas' mainstream Fatah faction have been bitter rivals since Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Following the takeover, Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led government from his base in the West Bank and formed a new administration excluding the more radical group.
Arab mediation efforts have so far failed to achieve reconciliation. Mashaal said Abbas was not qualified and has no right to negotiate with Israel on his own.
Abbas: Unity talks or early elections
Also on Sunday, Abbas said he would call new elections early next year if the rival Hamas movement does not open reconciliation talks with him - an ultimatum that threatened to deepen the rift that has left the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under separate rulers.
Hamas immediately rejected the call, which was widely seen as an effort to pressure the Islamic militant group and pave the way for Abbas to extend his term by at least another year.
Abbas, who controls only the West Bank, enjoys backing from the international community, while the Hamas regime in Gaza is deeply isolated. Repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed, most recently this month when Hamas abruptly canceled its participation in Egyptian-mediated unity talks in Cairo.
"We will wait until the beginning of next year, and if the national reconciliation talks have not started, I will issue a presidential decree calling this election," Abbas told leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah movement.
Abbas said he would call elections both for the presidency and to replace the Hamas-dominated legislature.
The threat addressed a simmering dispute that has been looming over Abbas for some time. Hamas believes his term in office ends on Jan. 9, while Abbas says he has another year in office.
The dispute is rooted in contradictory Palestinian election law. Abbas was elected to a four-year term in January 2005 after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, meaning his term would end in January. But the law also says presidential and parliamentary elections are supposed to be held together. The next parliamentary vote is scheduled in January 2010.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Abbas was merely maneuvering to stay in office and to continue his talks with Israel. Hamas rejects the negotiations.
"This call by the president reflects his real intention, that he wants the national conciliation talks only to extend his term. So if he cannot achieve this through talks, he wants to get it through pressure by calling for elections," Barhoum said.
Abbas set no date for the election, but it is unlikely Hamas will accept anything ahead of schedule. The militant group is already running a triumphant daily countdown to the end of Abbas' term on its television station and has said it will not recognize his authority after Jan. 9.
It is unclear whether elections would unify the Palestinians or deepen the divisions.
A vote could potentially strengthen moderates like Abbas, who is holding peace talks with Israel. Or they might be a repeat of a 2006 contest that saw Hamas win a surprise victory, beginning a violent process that led to Hamas' takeover of Gaza the following year.
Dominated by Hamas, the legislature has not functioned since mid-2006, when Israel rounded up Hamas lawmakers after the group seized an Israeli soldier and killed two others in a raid across the Israel-Gaza border. The body was then further sidelined after the Gaza takeover, when Abbas consolidated his power in the West Bank
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now