Hamas, Fatah reach deal to form unity government

Palestinian factions tentatively agree on a new prime minister

November 14, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Rival Palestinian factions reported a tentative agreement yesterday to name a U.S.-educated scientist as prime minister of a unity government that they hope will persuade Western nations to restore aid.

Mohammed Shabir, a former university president with no political affiliation, emerged as the likely leader of a new coalition during talks between the governing Hamas movement and Fatah, the party it defeated at the polls in January.

The two factions have been negotiating for months under pressure of sanctions that have left the Palestinian government barely able to function or pay its 165,000 employees.

The United States and the European Union cut off aid because Hamas, an Islamic movement they consider a terrorist group, took power without dropping its refusal to recognize Israel. Israel is boycotting the Hamas government by withholding tax revenue it collected for the Palestinian Authority.

Shabir, 60, holds a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University. He is an Islamist considered to be close to Hamas but had good relations with all factions during his 15 years as head of Gaza's Islamic University.

Officials of Hamas and Fatah emphasized that Shabir's nomination is not official and depends on further talks on the makeup of the Cabinet. The arrangement also appears to hinge on acceptance of the new government by the West and a prisoner release agreement between Hamas and Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads Fatah, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior figure in Hamas, agreed in September to form a unity government made up of technocrats from outside their parties' ranks. But negotiations stalled, and fighting erupted between armed Fatah and Hamas groups.

The two men revived their pact last week. In a speech Friday, Haniyeh announced that he was willing to step down if that would end the Palestinians' isolation. The tentative agreement on a new prime minister was the first step toward that end.

A new government would not strip Abbas of the presidency, to which he was elected in January 2005 after the death of Yasser Arafat. Their Fatah movement dominated Palestinian politics for decades.

It would be up to Abbas to nominate a new prime minister, and aides said he is unlikely to do so until the two factions agree on a Cabinet.

Hamas would name most of the ministers; Fatah and smaller parties would also be represented, in rough proportion to the votes received in January.

Abbas said last week that he hopes to name a new government by the end of the month. It would deal only with domestic Palestinian affairs, giving Abbas a mandate to seek a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

It remains unclear whether a new government would ease the Palestinians' isolation. Israel has refused to talk to any Palestinian government that does not accept three principles listed by the United States and the European Union for ending sanctions: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous Arab- Israeli peace agreements.

"The issue is not who is sitting in the government but what the government says," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio yesterday.

Aides say Abbas has received private assurances from Western leaders that the sanctions would not be applied to a new, nonpartisan Palestinian leadership. Hamas had insisted on such assurances as a condition for leaving the government.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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