- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

TEL AVIV — Palestinians will open a new political chapter today when a Hamas-majority parliament is inaugurated simultaneously in Ramallah and Gaza, though the new lawmakers are expected to be pressured during an address by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon violence and recognize peace treaties with Israel.

Mr. Abbas will formally assign the task of forming a new Cabinet to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister-apparent.

The United States has asked the Palestinian Authority to return $50 million in aid because Washington doesn’t want a Hamas-led government to receive the funds, and Mr. Abbas has agreed, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington yesterday.

The session will highlight the deep contradictions in the Palestinians’ democratically elected government — between Mr. Abbas’ preference for negotiations and Hamas’ advocacy of violence — at a time of mounting pressure from Israel and the international community that Hamas change its ways.

“It’s a new experience. There is no precedent for this,” said Kadoura Fares, an outgoing Palestinian legislator from Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party. “We’re in a very complicated situation.”

Mr. Haniyeh and Hamas, which won nearly three-fifths of the 132-seat Palestinian parliament in a Jan. 25 election landslide, will have up to five weeks to present a Cabinet to Mr. Abbas. Hamas has invited Fatah to join the government as a junior partner, but so far the party that has monopolized Palestinian politics for four decades has demurred.

Observers said a Fatah decision on joining the Cabinet depends on Hamas easing its rejection of talks with Israel.

Mr. Haniyeh, 43, is considered a pragmatist who has preferred conciliation rather than conflict with Fatah. But he has never indicated any flexibility on changing Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

“He has a good tone domestically. But when it comes to the principles of Hamas, he is committed,” said Mohammed Yaghi, a Ramallah political analyst. “Would he recognize the two-state solution? Up until now we haven’t heard anything from him.”

Mr. Haniyeh, a former dean of Islamic University in Gaza, rose to prominence as an aide to Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

Mr. Haniyeh will find himself barred from seeing the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah. That’s because Israel bans travel from Gaza to the West Bank of Palestinians identified with Hamas. The gathering of lawmakers in Gaza will be linked to the meeting in Ramallah via the Internet.

In addition to the roadblocks, nearly 10 percent of the members of the new parliament are serving time in Israeli jails.

Meanwhile, Israel is considering a range of sanctions on the Palestinian government after Hamas takes over. Reports said Israel is considering stopping Palestinian workers from Gaza to enter Israel and withholding customs taxes.

An Israeli government spokesman said a final decision would be announced today.

“We’re in a watch-and-wait mode. We’re going to be following what happens tomorrow in Ramallah, what is said what is done,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said yesterday.

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