Palestinian president sets May 4 as date for elections in West Bank and Gaza

VIENNA — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday set May 4 as the date for general elections meant to end a long-standing rift that has left his people divided between rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians have been split since Hamas militants overran Gaza in 2007. Hamas controls Gaza, while Abbas’ Palestinian Authority governs in the West Bank.

Abbas, on a state visit to Austria, had mentioned May before as the likely month for the vote but Monday was the first time that he set a specific date.

“We are planning to hold the elections on May 4, God willing,” Abbas told a news conference.

Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas agreed last May to a reconciliation plan culminating in elections.

But implementation of that plan has been slow, with the sides at odds over the formation of an interim government of technocrats that could prepare the two territories for the vote. In particular, they have been unable to agree upon a prime minister.

Abbas is facing massive financial pressure ahead of that vote, with Israel monthly holding back some $100 million of funds it collects on behalf of the Palestinians each month.

The Israelis have threatened that the move could turn permanent if Abbas forms a unity government with Hamas — an Islamic militant group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other violence.

The Israeli objections have put Abbas in a bind. Abbas hopes to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, territories that lie on opposite sides of Israel. He can’t accomplish this goal without some agreement with Hamas. But if he works with Hamas, he risks Israeli sanctions.

Hamas officials have suggested that the two sides quietly agreed last week to drop the idea of an interim government and leave the rival governments in place until the May elections. That would allow Abbas to avoid a showdown with Israel.

On Monday. Abbas said he would continue to seek an interim government, arguing that the ministers would be independents not beholden to Hamas or his Fatah movement. “We’re talking about a government of technocrats … who recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a state and who recognize my political authority,” he told reporters.

Abbas came away from his visit with a symbolically significant concession by Austria, with Heinz Fischer, his Austrian counterpart, announcing an upgrade of the Palestinian diplomatic status.

Fischer said the present PLO mission will be transformed into a mission of the Palestine Authority, which members of the Palestinian delegation said fell just short of full embassy status.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to resume peace negotiations, but Abbas insists Israel must first halt all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians claim for their state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

( / 28.11.2011)

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