Abbas open to Hamas talks if it cedes Gaza control

A00234356.jpgRAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he did not oppose dialogue with rival Hamas Islamists but reiterated the group must first relinquish control of the Gaza Strip.

Speaking a day after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh renewed a call for reconciliation talks, Abbas said Hamas had tried to “sabotage” the Palestinian struggle for an independent state when it violently seized control of Gaza in June.

“But we also say that we are not against dialogue because we want to unite all the Palestinian people,” Abbas told a group of Palestinian students at his office in Ramallah. “But (Hamas) must first reverse its coup so that we can have a dialogue.”

The Islamist group routed Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in Gaza, prompting Abbas to sack a Hamas-led government and agree to U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel.

Hamas, shunned by Israel and the West for refusing to renounce violence, has since called for dialogue with Fatah but has refused to give up control of Gaza as a prerequisite for talks.

Abbas, who holds sway in the larger West Bank, said Arab countries are trying to mediate between the factions.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week launched the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years and agreed at a U.S.-hosted conference to try and agree on creating a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.

Palestinian negotiators want an independent state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but Hamas’s control of the coastal enclave could complicate talks.

Hamas, which claims a Palestinian right to all land that is now Israel, has rejected the peace push and has vowed to continue its fight against Israel.

Since the conference, Israel has increased raids on Gaza to try to curb rocket fire from militants and has killed more than two dozen Palestinians.

Haniyeh on Wednesday called for non-conditional dialogue with Fatah to “heal the Palestinian wounds” and described the conference in Annapolis as a “cover” for Israeli aggression.

Abbas, who, like Olmert, is politically weak, said on Thursday that last month’s conference convened by U.S. President George W. Bush was “difficult”.

He said he rejected an Israeli proposal at Annapolis for a Palestinian state with provisional borders in return for recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Skeptics doubt the two sides will manage to broker an agreement within a year, given major differences over core issues such as Jerusalem, borders, the fate of thousands of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements

An Israeli official said Olmert, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were due to meet on Thursday to prepare for the next round of talks with Palestinian negotiators which are due to take place on December 12.

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