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Hamas to assemble Cabinet before Israel holds elections

GAZA CITY -- The Islamic militant group Hamas said yesterday that it will put together the next Palestinian government by early March -- timing that could help Israeli hawks in parliamentary elections.

Hamas officials said the group would stack top government positions with its own people, a move that could trigger an Israeli boycott of the Palestinian Authority. Yesterday, Hamas nominated three members for senior legislative posts, including parliament speaker.

Hamas, which calls for the elimination of Israel, trounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party in legislative elections last month. With a solid majority in the incoming parliament, Hamas is poised to form a Cabinet in the coming weeks, severely impeding Abbas's ability to pursue peace talks with Israel. The new parliament holds its first session Saturday.

Israeli leaders have taken a tough stance toward Hamas, ruling out any talks with the group unless it renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and accepts existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in the Israeli election, said this week that ''all contacts" with the Palestinians will be reviewed once Hamas takes office. He also has threatened to cut off monthly transfers of about $50 million in tax money to the cash-starved Palestinian government.

Top Israeli officials, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, held the first of a series of meetings to discuss future policy for dealing with Hamas, and officials said the trend was to stop all but humanitarian funding.

An Israeli newspaper quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz as saying Israel wouldn't deal with the Palestinians at all if Hamas taps its own people as prime minister and parliament speaker. Mofaz told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that if the two posts are filled by Hamas people, ''we will not hold any talks with them."

Hamas's unexpected rise to power, and its continuing refusal to renounce violence, has shaken up the campaign for Israel's March 28 elections.

The Kadima Party, headed by Olmert since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke last month, has enjoyed a strong lead in opinion polls on a platform of territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

But Hamas's success could benefit right-wing parties such as Likud, which takes a hard line against the Palestinians. The party's election slogans stress that only it can stand up to militants.

In a TV interview yesterday, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to rally international opposition to Hamas. ''It is part of an international obstacle. We need to ensure our future with an experienced and responsible leadership that knows the job," he told Channel 2 TV.

A poll published yesterday indicated that Kadima was holding steady with more than twice as many seats as either of its main rivals -- Likud or Labor.

There had been indications Hamas would wait until after the Israeli elections to appoint a Cabinet, and there was widespread speculation the group might turn to independent candidates for top political posts.

But yesterday, Ismail Haniyeh, widely seen as Hamas's top candidate for prime minister, said a Cabinet would be in place soon.

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