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Palestinian power struggle has major implications for region, U.S.

JERUSALEM—After another day of escalating violence that included a mortar attack on the offices of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, an ambush on a convoy carrying the Palestinian foreign minister and an hour-long gun battle, Abbas' Fatah party and the militant Islamic group Hamas late Sunday said they'd reached a cease-fire agreement.

Another gun battle broke out in Gaza around midnight, however, and it isn't clear whether a cease-fire can hold. If it does, the late night deal could help head off a Palestinian civil war, but it isn't likely to end a six-month power struggle between Abbas, a secular moderate, and Hamas, a militant Islamic group that's backed by Iran and Syria and doesn't accept Israel's right to exist.

By calling for new elections, Abbas has raised the stakes in his clash with Hamas, leaving three possible outcomes: a new unity or technocratic government; new elections that could leave either his secular Fatah party or Hamas in charge; or civil war. A civil war or a Hamas election victory would destroy whatever faint hope remains that Palestinians and Israelis could resume negotiations on a permanent peace agreement.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to press for renewed peace negotiations but the duel between Abbas, who's open to negotiations, and Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, could add to the pressure on President Bush to change course. The Baker Commission has urged the administration to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative as part of an effort to contain the conflict in Iraq, and experts say that such an effort also could bolster Abbas.

So far, the Bush administration has offered the Palestinian leader, who's also known as Abu Mazen, moral support for his election call, but it's provided only limited aid and made no effort to press for renewed peace talks. Experts say that lukewarm U.S. support has hurt Abbas more than it's helped him.

"When Washington, London and Brussels express open support for early elections by Abu Mazen, they are weakening him in the eyes of the public," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of PASSIA, a Palestinian policy institute.

"The U.S. public support for Abu Mazen is seen as an empty promise, mainly because it does not follow up with concrete suggestions for renewal of the political negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians," said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Israel's Ben Gurion University.

"The situation would improve if negotiations began," said Diana Buttu, a Middle East analyst and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization. "One of the major reasons Hamas got so much support was the failure of negotiations."

Hamas has rejected Abbas' call for new elections, calling it a coup against a democratically elected government, but so far the group hasn't decided if it would boycott new elections.

Both sides have some incentive to compromise on either a unity government or one made up of non-political technocrats. Hamas' victory in elections last January, its refusal to recognize Israel and the impasse between Abbas and Fatah have cut off Western aid and Israeli payments to the Palestinians, leaving the economy in ruins and the government unable to pay some 160,000 employees.

"The present situation highlights the need for a permanent settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," said Buttu. "If there is none, the situation will spiral out of control on the Palestinian side and that will affect the Israeli side."

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(Halpern is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent in Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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