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International talks sought by Abbas on Mideast conflict

OSLO -- Mahmoud Abbas called yesterday for an international conference to end his people's conflict with Israel -- with the Palestinian president sidestepping the Hamas government and leading the talks himself.

The idea, raised in the city that gave its name to the historic 1993 Oslo peace accords, reflects Abbas's power struggle with Hamas, the Islamic militant group whose recent election victory has isolated the Palestinians and reinforced Israel's determination to draw borders without negotiations.

Israel has long opposed international conferences, however, and Hamas refused to comment on the idea.

Abbas's use of a foreign capital to float the idea of peace talks was the latest installment in his increasingly contentious and public power struggle with Hamas, which swept his long-ruling Fatah Party from power in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

With the West and Israel cutting vital aid and tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to force Hamas to renounce its violent ideology, Abbas apparently is trying to use his international legitimacy to ease the pressure on his increasingly isolated people.

Abbas said an international group should serve as a broker, possibly the so-called Quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, which three years ago proposed a peace blueprint that never got off the ground.

''I am ready to immediately resume negotiations with the Israeli government," Abbas said in a speech at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. ''It is important for me to clarify that the Palestinian legislative elections, which brought Hamas to power, are not an obstacle to negotiations."

Abbas said his Palestine Liberation Organization has the mandate to negotiate in the Middle East conflict because it signed all previous agreements with Israel.

Since its election, Hamas has rebuffed international pressure to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa rejected Abbas's proposal, saying: ''At one moment or another, perhaps -- not now -- such an idea could be useful."

Hamas refused to comment on Abbas's call. However, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said this month that Abbas ''can move on political fronts and negotiate with whomever he wants. What is important is what will be offered to the Palestinian people."

Israel reacted to Abbas's comments by noting that a formula already exists for resuming peace talks -- the Quartet's ''road map" peace plan, which envisions the ultimate establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The road map, which ran aground after both sides failed to meet initial obligations, also envisions an international meeting, but only in the third and final stage of the blueprint for creating a Palestinian state.

Abbas was a key player in months of secret Norwegian-led talks that led to the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement of 1993.

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