UDPATE 1-Palestinians gloomy as Israel moves right

Wed Feb 11, 2009 8:17am EST

(Recasts with Palestinian officials)

By Andrew Hammond and Ali Sawafta

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Palestinians reacted gloomily to Israeli election results on Wednesday, as the likelihood rose of a more right-wing government opposed to returning land for a Palestinian state.

But the self-rule Palestinian Authority (PA) said the next Israeli cabinet would be obliged to continue peace talks and meet international obligations.

"The ascent of the Israeli right does not worry us," President Mahmoud Abbas told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.

"In whatever form, the government, once in power, will ultimately end up with responsibility, pragmatism prevailing."

Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party both claimed victory late on Tuesday night, so it was not clear who would be prime minister.

But parties to the right of Kadima seemed to have a majority, including Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu which surged into third place on anti-Arab rhetoric. Ehud Barak's leftish Labour appeared to have made its poorest showing ever.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose Western-backed government runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank inland while Hamas Islamists control the Gaza Strip on the coast, told reporters Israel must meet international obligations:

"We imagine that the expectations of the international community (towards Israel) will be the same as ours," he said.

Palestinians are still dealing with the fall-out of Israel's 22-day land, sea and air assault in Gaza, which killed 1,300 Palestinians and left thousands more wounded or homeless.

Israel said the operation was to curb rocket fire by militants into southern Israeli cities from Gaza. The coastal enclave has been ruled by Hamas since 2007, when it fought the Fatah faction of U.S.-backed leader Abbas.



DOUBTS

"I am not optimistic about the next Israeli prime minister. They have different faces but the same policy. Livni or Netanyahu -- who would think of giving Palestinians their land back?" said Osman al-Natsheh, a shopowner in Hebron.

"Israelis voted for the right and against peace. We will not see progress in the peace process in the coming years," said office employee Ali Zaidan in Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Palestinians are sharply divided politically.

Abbas backs peace talks with Israel to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, while Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel, says only armed action will force Israel to evacuate Jewish settlements -- though it offers a long-term truce if Israel pulls back to its 1967 borders.

"We expect nothing from them because we are still divided," said decorator Abu Ali Shaaban in Gaza, where Israel has maintained a tight blockade on movement of people and supplies since Hamas took over in 2007.

"We need to unite as they are united and then we can stand up and see what we can do with them. Until then, Hamas and Fatah can only blame themselves," he added.

But Sahar al-Shabani, a student at Hebron University in the West Bank, said a government led by Livni might be better for Palestinians and the peace process, although Livni was a strong supporter of the Gaza war.

"As a Palestinian I look on Livni as a killer," she said.

"But as a student, caring about who the next prime minister is, I would look to her as a leader who is capable of negotiating with the Palestinians." (Additional reporting by Haitham Tamimi and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Richard Balmforth)



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