GAZA CITY -- President Mahmoud Abbas's bumpy efforts to set up a Palestinian government acceptable to the West suffered a new setback yesterday when the prime minister from the Islamic militant Hamas group said he would not lead a coalition that recognizes Israel.
Hamas has ruled alone since March, but this month agreed to share power with Abbas's moderate Fatah Party in hopes of ending a crippling international aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority.
The Hamas-Fatah coalition deal sidestepped recognition of Israel. Instead, it said the government would seek to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which implies recognition. However, the United States and Israel demanded a clear commitment from Hamas on the subject, and Abbas was forced to revisit the issue.
At the United Nations on Thursday, Abbas indicated a national unity government would recognize the Jewish state. It wasn't clear whether Abbas promised more than he can deliver, in hopes of soliciting international support, or whether he was trying to pressure Hamas.
Abbas and his aides were traveling yesterday from New York to Cairo and could not be reached for comment.
Hamas leaders reacted swiftly. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told Muslim worshipers in Gaza that recognition of Israel is out of the question. ``I personally will not head any government that recognizes Israel," said Haniyeh, considered a leader of Hamas's more pragmatic wing.
He reiterated that Hamas is ready to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, and to honor a long-term truce with Israel.
``We support establishing a Palestinian state in the land of 1967 at this stage, but in return for a cease-fire, not recognition," Haniyeh said.
Hamas officials left open the possibility of more negotiations, saying they want to hear from Abbas when he returns to the region. ``We don't want to build on statements or positions we heard in the media," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. ``When Abu Mazen [Abbas] comes back, we will listen to him and evaluate."
Palestinians appeared to be conflicted over what they want their leaders to do.
Recent opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority wants Hamas to stick to its refusal to recognize Israel, apparently as an expression of Palestinian pride, even at the price of economic hardship caused by the foreign aid boycott.
Hamas would lose much of its popularity if it were to issue a statement of recognition, the polls indicate. However, two-thirds of Palestinians also want Abbas to negotiate a peace deal with Israel.
Caught between such contradictory expectations, Abbas has been banking on a vague agreement.
An Abbas aide, Nabil Amr, said yesterday that Hamas would not be expected to issue a statement of recognition, but would be asked to recognize agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, including the PLO's 1993 mutual recognition agreement with Israel. Abbas heads the PLO.
However, the United States and Israel might not settle for such fuzzy language.
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin reiterated that any Palestinian government must yield to the demands of the international community -- recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of previous peace agreements.