June 9, 2008 - 4:20pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's popularity rebounded in a survey released on Monday after he renewed his call for dialogue with the Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip.

The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, suggested that Abbas would win 52 percent of the vote against 40 percent for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if a presidential election were held in the Palestinian territories now.

A survey by the same group in March showed Haniyeh leading Abbas by 47 percent to 46.

The new poll was conducted shortly after Abbas called for "a national and comprehensive dialogue" with Hamas, which ousted Abbas's more secular Fatah faction from Gaza in a bloody coup last June.

Abbas's call was welcomed by Haniyeh, though aides to Abbas quickly insisted there was no change in his demand that Hamas give up control of the Gaza Strip.

The polling centre said the continued closure of Gaza's border crossing with Egypt was undercutting Hamas's standing.

Haniyeh served as prime minister in the Hamas-led Palestinian government that was dismissed by Abbas after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah-led forces.

The survey found that, if new parliamentary elections were to take place, Hamas would receive 31 percent while Fatah would receive 43 percent. The March poll had given Hamas 35 percent and Fatah 42 percent.

The new survey also found that Fatah leader Marwan al-Barghouthi, imprisoned in Israel and seen as a possible successor to Abbas, would defeat Haniyeh by 27 percentage points if he were able to stand.

Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said on Monday Hamas' exiled leader Khaled Meshal said during a meeting with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem that Hamas is ready for a national Palestinian dialogue that will achieve reconciliation and preserve national rights. It said the two discussed the situation in the Palestinian territories. SANA did not elaborate.

Later in the day, Hamas issued a statement quoting Meshal as saying that the group is ready to participate in any direct dialogue (with Fatah) at one table under Arab umbrella if dialogue was without preconditions.

Haniyeh plays down chances of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation bid

Also on Monday, Haniyeh played down the chances of quick reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction.

"Things are still at the beginning and it may take a long time," said Ismail Haniyeh, whom Abbas dismissed as prime minister of a Hamas-led unity government last June after the Islamist group ousted secular Fatah from the Gaza Strip in bloody coup.

Abbas's call last week for "a national and comprehensive dialogue" has been welcomed by Haniyeh, though aides to Abbas said there was no change in his demand that Hamas give up control of the Gaza Strip.

Haniyeh said any dialogue should be held "without conditions". "There should be no winners and no losers."

Haniyeh cited resistance from Israel as a factor that could delay reconciliation.

U.S. President George W. Bush is pushing Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to strike a deal on Palestinian statehood this year. But Israel has said it could review its ties with Abbas if he were to mend relations with Hamas, which refuses to renounce violence or recognise the Jewish state.

The flurry of debate on relations between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement coincided with Palestinian commemorations of the Israeli capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 and the first anniversary of the fighting that saw the Islamists rout Fatah forces in Gaza and take control there.

The schism has handicapped Abbas in efforts to negotiate for a Palestinian state in U.S.-sponsored talks with Israel although it also brought an end to Western sanctions on the Fatah-run West Bank after Abbas fired the Hamas-led government.

Aides to Abbas say the president wants discussion on the implementation of a recent Yemeni diplomatic initiative which called for Hamas to give up Gaza - not a debate on mutual concessions.

Some analysts saw Abbas's renewal of a call for Arab states to mediate an end to the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank as part of strategy to bolster his position at home in the face of mounting scepticism over the prospects of reaching a deal this year on establishing a Palestinian state.

One senior Israeli official said Israel believed Abbas's talk of reconciliation was meant to increase pressure on Israel and the United States to avert a major Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah, Hamas: New reconciliation talks restore 'mutual respect'

Talks between Fatah and Hamas in the Senegalese capital Dakar this weekend had restored "an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect" between the Palestinian factions, a statement signed by both sides said on Sunday.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, offered his services in March as a mediator between the two parties.

A statement following the talks, which began on Friday, said Senegal would resume contact with both sides to organise future meetings with the aim of "reconciling the Palestinian family".

"The Palestinian representatives ... thank the mediator for managing to restore an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, which allowed them to discuss the fundamental interests of the Palestinian people," said the communique signed by Hikmat Zeid for Fatah, Emad Khalid Alamy for Hamas and Senegal's Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio.

Senegal's state news agency APS reported on Saturday that Wade had met individually with the Palestinian delegations. "The mediation would take place in seven stages," a presidential spokesman said.

Hamas ended more than 40 years of the more secular Fatah's ascendancy with a victory in parliamentary elections in 2006.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman based in the Gaza Strip, said the daily arrest and torture of its members in the West Bank by security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah "did not prepare the atmosphere for dialogue."

"Hamas has taken steps (towards dialogue) and the president of the authority and Fatah movement in the West Bank are demanded to take similar steps to prove seriousness and concern and good intentions," he told Reuters.

Yemen tried to broker a reconciliation deal between the rival Palestinian movements in March but efforts broke down after disagreement over whether Hamas should cede control of the coastal territory.

Arab ministers meeting at the Arab League have backed the Yemeni proposal, which calls on Hamas to hand over control of Gaza. Hamas says it is ready to resume dialogue but without preconditions.

Also Saturday, Haniyeh called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, seeking Arab support for the renewed dialogue, Haniyeh's office said.

Haniyeh said last Thursday he welcomed what he called a "new spirit" of dialogue in a keynote speech by Abbas.


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