The July Palestinian parliamentary election should be postponed, a senior official said in an interview published Thursday, another sign that the ruling Fatah Party is deeply worried about the growing strength of the militant Hamas, fielding candidates for the first time.
The election, only the second in the 11 years since the Palestinian Authority was founded, is set for July 17, but Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, called for a delay.
It was the strongest indication yet that Abbas might postpone the election, despite a promise to Hamas to hold the vote on time. Hamas quickly rejected the call.
Fatah activists have warned Abbas the party is headed for defeat if it goes to elections in July. Polls show Palestinian voters are fed up with corruption and inefficiency in the Palestinian government, dating to the rule of Yasser Arafat, who died last November. Without Arafat's charisma and standing, Abbas could lead his Fatah Party to a poor showing, further eroding his ability to carry out reforms and rein in militants.
Fatah leaders say their they have a better chance if the election is held after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza this summer _ something Abbas can claim as an achievement _ and after a party convention in August would usher some younger, reform-minded candidates into key positions.
Hamas, which gained more ground in local elections last week, insists Abbas stick to the election date, part of a truce deal the two sides negotiated in March.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the election must be held on time. Attempts to postpone the voting "might affect Palestinian relations," he said.
Hamas and other militant groups agreed to Abbas' Feb. 8 cease-fire with Israel, but Hamas has frequently threatened to break the truce if its conditions are not met, including holding the election on time.
Palestinian militant groups might not maintain the current truce after Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank in the summer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday, according to Army Radio.
Sharon was speaking at an independence day reception at the president's official residence. The radio quoted Sharon as saying that Palestinian-Israeli violence could resume after the withdrawal. "I don't think that all of Israel's problems will be solved after the pullout," he said. A truce declared Feb. 8 drastically reduced the level of violence after more than four years of bloodshed.
Abdel Rahim told the Al Quds daily in an interview published Thursday that for now, no decision has been made to postpone the vote, but that there are "legal, political and national reasons" to do so.
He noted that the Palestinian parliament, controlled by Fatah, has not yet passed a new election law it has been debating for several months. "That makes it difficult to conduct elections on time," he said.
Palestinians elected their current parliament in January 1995 under terms of an interim peace deal with Israel. Palestinians have tried to schedule new elections several times, but canceled the voting, explaining that free elections could not be held with Israeli troops in control of the roads and towns.
Since the cease-fire was declared, Israel has lifted more than 20 roadblocks and turned two towns, Jericho and Tulkarem, over to Palestinian control. However, Israel called off transfer of three other towns, charging that Palestinian security has not disarmed militants.
Last month, Hamas officials said they were approached by Abbas with an offer to agree to postponing the election until the end of the year, and that in exchange they would receive jobs in the current Cabinet. Hamas leaders said they rejected the plan.
In recent months, Hamas has participated in three rounds of municipal voting in the West Bank and Gaza, posing a strong challenge to Fatah. In local elections last week, Fatah won control in a majority of 83 towns and villages. However, Hamas won the three biggest races, in the towns of Rafah, Beit Lahiya and Qalqiliya.
MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press Writer
On the photo: Mahmoud Abbas