Blair Urges West to Back Abbas

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the West to get behind Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Monday after Abbas pledged to follow through on holding early Palestinian elections.

Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire in a street battle outside Abbas' Gaza Strip residence on Monday despite the reported overnight declaration of a ceasefire between Abbas' Fatah faction and the ruling Hamas party.

Inter-Palestinian fighting escalated over the weekend after Abbas declared that he would call for early elections in the P.A. He blames Hamas for the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip.

Three Palestinians were killed on Sunday in what has been described as the worst inter-Palestinian fighting yet. Mortar shells were fired at the Gaza Strip office of Abbas, and Hamas claimed that Abbas' Fatah faction had attempted to assassinate P.A. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar after his vehicle came under fire, wire reports said.

The Palestinian government has been deadlocked since last January, when Palestinians voted Hamas into power. Abbas - backed by the U.S. and the West -- is considered by some to be a moderate with whom Israel can negotiate.

(Some critics say that although Abbas' speaks differently, his ideology is no different from that of Hamas, which openly calls for the destruction of Israel.)

P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the Hamas government, accused Abbas of inflaming the situation and pledged that Hamas would not take part in new elections.

The results of a poll released on Sunday showed that Abbas would face a tight race for president if he ran against Haniyeh.

In parliament, Abbas' Fatah faction would garner 42 percent of the vote compared to Hamas' 36 percent, the poll projected. (It should be noted here that Palestinian polls failed to predict Hamas' stunning win in parliamentary elections in January.)

Abbas met with Blair in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday. "With the current impasse, I felt it was essential to allow the people to have their say on a platform that achieves Palestinian national interests," Abbas said in reference to his decision to call for early elections. He spoke at a joint press conference with Blair.

Abbas said he is eager to lift the economic sanctions that the international community imposed on the P.A. after Hamas swept into power.

Blair indicated that's a good reason for the international community to support Abbas. He said Britain would not negotiate with Hamas.

"If the international community really means what it says about supporting people who share the vision of a two-state solution, who are moderate, who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities, then now is the time for the international community to respond," Blair said.

Blair is scheduled to discuss the Palestinian issue when he meets this evening with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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