- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

TEL AVIV — Under mounting pressure to release a kidnapped Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh put aside differences in a power-sharing agreement aimed at ending months of internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah and implicitly recognizing Israel.

The agreement came as a surprise.

With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatening a broad invasion of Gaza and more assassinations in retaliation for the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and the killings of two other soldiers during a cross-border raid, tensions have been on the rise between the rival Palestinian parties and within the Hamas party itself over how to respond.

Early today, Israeli planes attacked two bridges and a power station, knocking out electricity in most of the Gaza Strip and stepping up the pressure on Palestinian militants holding Cpl. Shalit, 19.

In central Gaza, a bridge was destroyed in a strike launched from an Israeli aircraft.

“People usually unify at times of crisis,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in Mr. Abbas’ Cabinet. “I think the prime minister, particularly, is in need of the president nowadays, especially given that there seems to be difficulties inside of Hamas.”

Mr. Haniyeh is thought to be at odds with Damascus, Syria-based Hamas hard-liner Khaled Meshal over the agreement and the attack. Mr. Abbas also is keen on gaining international legitimacy as Western countries boycott the Hamas-led government for its refusal to recognize Israel.

For Mr. Abbas, considered by some as a lame duck in the wake of Hamas’ victory, cajoling Hamas into an agreement that calls for the Islamic militants to join the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) can be a form of a victory.

“The president has always been interested in such an agreement, because this will make him stronger internally and externally,” Mr. Khatib said.

The prisoners document calls for Hamas to join the ranks of the PLO, a signatory to peace agreements with Israel. It also calls for a moratorium on attacks within Israel while legitimizing violence in areas still under Israeli control. The document also calls on Hamas and Fatah to join in a national unity government.

It is described as implicitly recognizing Israel because it accepts a Palestinian state limited to Gaza and the West Bank, in effect restricting Israel to its pre-1967 war borders.

Palestinians from Fatah have complained of a “two-headed” government pulling in opposite directions. While Mr. Abbas has called on the newly elected Hamas politicians to join peace talks with Israel, the Islamic militants have remained steadfast in their opposition to recognize the Jewish state or foreswear military attacks on Israel.

After the kidnapping, Mr. Abbas immediately denounced the operation and promised to dispatch troops to find the soldier. But Mr. Haniyeh has remained silent as aides called on militants to treat the captive well.

Fatah politicians hailed the agreement as a Hamas concession on the peace process. But, they acknowledged that the agreement won’t be a springboard to talks with Israel because it contains phrases that the Israelis can’t accept.

“Our way has prevailed,” said Jamal Nazzal, a spokesperson for the Fatah party. “We have called for the recognition of Israel, and now almost 18 years after it, Hamas comes to understand how the world is. Hamas wants to be recognized by the world, but they didn’t read the structure of the world. So now, under pressure, they are maturing.”

The agreement aims to end weeks of fighting among Palestinian factions that has claimed 20 lives and threatens to mushroom into a civil war. It remains to be seen whether militant field commanders on both sides will observe the accord.

Many have criticized the agreement language as being so vague as to allow radically divergent interpretations. Although saying he supported the agreement, Hamas legislator Wael Husseini insisted that the accord doesn’t mark a departure from Hamas’ traditional opposition to Israel’s existence.

“We will never recognize the legitimacy of Israel inside the 1948 borders,” he said, referring to the dimensions of the Jewish state accepted by most of the international community. “That doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the existence of the Israelis. We recognize the existence of Israel, but not on our land. We don’t give Israel anything in return for withdrawal.” However, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh seem to have reached a cohabitation arrangement that benefits both.

“The developments in the last three days weakens the political position and status of Haniyeh” among the Palestinian public, especially in Gaza, said Tel Aviv University professor Shaul Mishal, who authored a book on Hamas. “It’s possible that the difficult situation that the government is in might have convinced them to show more willingness to go for this agreement.”

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