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Hamas meets with Abbas to discuss new government

JERUSALEM—Islamist militants with Hamas moved one step closer to forming the new government on Saturday by holding their first meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and vowing to ensure a smooth transition of power.

Speaking after their 90-minute discussion at the president's Gaza City compound, Hamas leaders said they would quickly choose the next prime minister after the new legislature convenes on Feb. 16.

"We will prove to the people that we are able to rebuild our homeland," said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who told reporters his group still hoped to form a coalition with Abbas' dethroned Fatah party.

When the Palestinian Legislative Council convenes next week, Abbas plans to deliver a keynote address to outline the demands he expects the next government to follow—including acceptance of Israel's right to live side-by-side with a new Palestinian nation.

"The president will address the council and Palestinian people and we will have to wait and see if they will abide by that," said Abbas political adviser Nabil Aburdeni.

After the speech, Hamas is expected to nominate a prime minister within a week.

"We will accelerate the process of forming the next government so that we will not have to have a political and constitutional vacuum," Haniyeh said.

Saturday's meeting was the first concrete step in creating the region's first Hamas-led government, a process that could be difficult and remains filled with uncertainties.

Since scoring a decisive victory in the Jan. 25 legislative elections, Hamas has been widely ostracized by the international community, which considers the group a terrorist organization.

Israel has temporarily cut off the flow of tax funds, a step that has further undermined the Palestinian Authority's tenuous fiscal stability.

The United States and European community have threatened to block billions in aid to the Palestinian government if Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and reject violence. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also has said that his nation won't deal with a Hamas-led government unless it meets the same demands.

The threats have placed enormous pressure on Hamas, which has been wrestling with what to do.

Hamas has been trying to entice Fatah into joining them in a coalition government—a move the long-dominant party founded by the late Yasser Arafat has so far rejected.

One option the group has been considering is tapping respected technocrats to run the ministries that deal with the outside world—such as interior and foreign affairs.

While many Hamas loyalists want Haniyeh to be the next prime minister, the group is also weighing whether to name someone outside the group to the top post.

Even if Hamas follows this course, it is unlikely to assuage Israel and the rest of the international community.

Aburdeni said that Hamas has sent "very positive signals" that it is willing to change, even though it continues to stand by its hard-line positions.

"We have to be patient and we have to wait and give them a chance as they have won the elections," said Aburdeni.

Hamas surprised even itself by winning 74 of 132 seats in the new Palestinian legislature while Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian political life for four decades, won 45.

Faced with the prospect of running a massive government for the first time, Hamas has tried to bring veteran Fatah members into a coalition government. Aburdeni said Fatah would be willing to do so only if Hamas accepted Israel's right to live alongside a new Palestinian nation.

After the meeting, Hamas leader Mahoud Zahar repeated his group's longstanding refusal to take that step.

"We will not recognize the enemy," said Zahar.

Hamas leaders are expected to head to Cairo Sunday to try and cultivate support in the Arab world from skeptical leaders who are also putting pressure on the group to change its uncompromising platform.

Hamas officials have said that they have already received pledges from Arab nations to fill any financial shortfall if Western donors cut off aid.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Gaza City.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-HAMAS

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