Speaking before the swearing-in of the new Israeli government on Thursday, Mahmoud Abbas told the Israeli daily Maariv that Tel Aviv should not be deterred from renewing peace talks with the Palestinians despite Hamas's control of the Palestinian Authority.

"We should not miss this opportunity," he said. "It is my intention to bring the results of the negotiations [with Israel], if and when they end, to the Palestinian people in the form of a referendum, and to give the Palestinian people the right to decide."

Hamas has not suggested a referendum directly, but it said in March that "the question of recognising Israel is not the jurisdiction of one faction, nor the government, but a decision for the Palestinian people".

US reaction

 

Later on Thursday, the US, reacting to Abbas's comments, said the time was not ripe, with Hamas running the Palestinian government.

 

Sean McCormack, the US State Department spokesman, said that while Abbas had "great moral authority", power in the Palestinian camp was in the hands of a movement that Washington has branded terrorist.

 

"The Palestinian people will decide and I am certain that there is an overwhelming majority ... in favour of an agreement with Israel"

Mahmoud Abbas,
Palestinian president

"So it is hard to have a negotiating partner when the government is led by a member of a terrorist organisation, and his cabinet comprises members of a terrorist organisation," he said.

 

Ehud Olmert, the incoming Israeli prime minister, has promised to set Israel's permanent borders by 2010 by strengthening big settlement blocs and evacuating isolated enclaves, a step he said he would make unilaterally if there were no peace talks with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials say Olmert is likely to meet Abbas in the coming weeks, but said they saw little chance of peace talks until the Hamas-led Palestinian government renounced violence, recognised Israel and agreed to existing peace agreements.

Hamas says talks with Israel would be a waste of time.

Abbas suggested that a peace deal could be reached despite the objections of Hamas.

"The Palestinian people will decide and I am certain that there is an overwhelming majority among the Palestinian people for peace, an overwhelming majority in favour of an agreement with Israel," Abbas told Maariv, an Israeli daily newspaper.

Bush's speech

In other news, the US president on Thursday night repeated his pledge that Washington will not deal with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority as long as Hamas refuses to disavow armed resistance and to acknowledge Israel.

The audience at the American Jewish Committee's centennial dinner in Washington DC applauded George Bush's rhetoric against Hamas, a group the US brands a terrorist organisation.

"America's commitment to Israel's security is strong, enduring  and unshakeable," Bush said.

He said the US and Israel were "natural allies and these ties will never be broken".

"As you know, I'm a strong believer of democracy and free elections, but that does not mean that we have to support elected officials who are not committed to peace," Bush said.

"Hamas has made it clear that they do not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, and I've made it clear that so long as that's their policy, we'll have no contact with the leaders of Hamas."