Palestinian leader dismisses presidential rumors

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — A top Palestinian leader says he will not run for president, even as the two main Palestinian factions inch toward a unity deal that would allow elections as early as May.

Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, dismissed reports that he is considering a presidential bid, particularly if President Mahmoud Abbas makes good on his pledge not to run again.

“If you’re looking for a Sherman statement, you can say you have it,” Mr. Fayyad told The Washington Times in an hourlong interview at his office. He was referring to Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s rejection of the presidency in 1884: “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.”

The last Palestinian Authority presidential election was held in January 2005. A scheduled 2009 election was scrapped because of the political division between the West Bank, dominated by Mr. Abbas‘ Fatah faction, and the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas militant group seized control in 2007.

Mr. Abbas had called for general elections on May 4, the anniversary of his yet-to-be-implemented reconciliation deal with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal.

But that date seems increasingly far-fetched, given the issues that still divide the factions, including Mr. Fayyad’s future.

Mr. Abbas, who installed the Western-backed Mr. Fayyad as premier in June 2007 after Hamas‘ takeover of Gaza, had pressed for him to retain his post in a caretaker government, but Hamas remains adamantly opposed.

Some have speculated that Mr. Fayyad might serve as finance minister - a job he held from 2002 to 2006 - in a unity government.

But Mr. Fayyad, who has been credited with restoring international trust in Palestinian finances, said he would not stay simply to keep foreign aid flowing.

“If somebody is this objectionable to you as a prime minister, why then should you accept him as finance minister?” he said. “It would be too obvious a way of this being a message that we really need to have this guy because his presence is related to expectations about the flow of funds and what have you.

“I do not really view myself as an ATM for the Palestinian Authority,” he added.

In recent interviews with The Times, Palestinian officials said they want reconciliation as soon as possible.

Many argue that Hamas - known in the West for its suicide bombings and vow to destroy Israel - has become more moderate since joining the political process in 2006, when it dominated Palestinian legislative elections.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said Hamas deserves to be seen in the same light as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party and other “moderate Islamists.”

Hamas is changing politically,” she said. “I told Khaled Mashal this personally: His social agenda is what bothers me, not his political agenda.”

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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