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Abbas downplays Hamas effect on relations with Israel

In a meeting of Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Palestinian President Abbas has said he is open to extending peace talks with Israel. Talks have been suspended since a unity Palestinian government was announced.

Speaking from Ramallah in the West Bank on Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said a new unified government of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas would follow his lead when it came to relations with Israel.

"The upcoming government will obey my policy," Abbas told PLO members on Saturday. "I recognize Israel and reject violence and terrorism, and recognize international commitments."

His comments are in response to a

decision taken by Israel

earlier this week to suspend peace talks with the Palestinians after the PLO and Hamas agreed to work together to achieve Palestinian statehood. Israel, along with the US and other Western nations, view Hamas as a terror organization.

"The government will be committed to what I am committed to," Abbas said. "No one can claim that this will be a government of extremists."

Open to talks

Abbas said he was open to continuing peace talks with Israel beyond a deadline that had been set for next week pending the fulfillment of long-standing demands from the Palestinians.

These include the gradual release of Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel and a commitment from Israel to

stop building settlements

in occupied land in the West Bank and annexed parts of Jerusalem.

"How can we restart the talks? There's no obstacle to us restarting the talks, but the 30 prisoners need to be released," Abbas said, referring to a

particular group of prisoners

who were due to be released shortly before the talks were suspended.

Abbas also reiterated his stance that the Palestinians would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying the political recognition was enough and Israel's religious identity shouldn't need to be accepted.

Hamas welcomes speech

The speech was welcomed by Hamas. An advisor to Ismail Haniya, Hamas' Gaza Strip prime minister, told the AFP news agency that the speech was "mostly positive."

"The speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognising (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations," Bassem Naim said.

In reference to a statement by Abbas that the united Palestinian government would not be responsible for talks with Israel – a task that will remain with the PLO alone, Naim said "it is not the government's mission to take care of political issues. It has only three main missions: unifying the Palestinian organizations, preparing for elections and reconstructing Gaza."

mz/lw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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