- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh announced a Palestinian Cabinet dominated by his Hamas party yesterday as the U.S. diplomats pressed Palestinian and Israeli officials to head off a potential humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

The key posts went to Mahmoud Zahar, a trained physician who was tapped as foreign minister; Said Siam, a reputed former leader of the Hamas military wing who was nominated as interior minister; and Omar Abdul Razeq, an economics professor tapped as finance minister.

The 24-member Cabinet includes one woman and one Christian.

Despite the Islamic militant group’s failure to persuade the defeated Fatah party to join the government, Mr. Haniyeh and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeared upbeat after a meeting in Gaza City to discuss the Cabinet and its policy guidelines.

Observers saw the atmosphere as a sign that Mr. Abbas will approve the first Palestinian government run by Islamists, even though Hamas rejected a demand by the president that the new government recognize international agreements reached by the outgoing Fatah-led administration.

“The meeting was positive,” said Mr. Abbas, who told reporters that he plans to seek approval from the Palestine Liberation Organization for the new government within 48 hours. “There are obstacles and difficulties, but with good will we can overcome them.”

Hours earlier, Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. negotiators agreed on a new crossing arrangement for the Israel-Gaza Strip border, averting the threat of food shortages. Israel has kept Gaza’s only commercial crossing closed for much of the past two months because of security concerns.

During a meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to open a second crossing, Kerem Shalom, to the limited passage of goods. Hamas was not a party to the negotiations, but the agreement will boost stability among Palestinians as the new government gets under way.

Hamas’ failure to find a coalition partner means that the inexperienced Islamic militants will have to manage the Palestinian government on their own. Observers said a political conflict between Mr. Abbas and Hamas will be unavoidable if Mr. Haniyeh’s government fails to establish domestic stability and maintain international support.

“Crises are expected unless Hamas is a surprise,” said Sliman Shafi, a Palestinian affairs expert on Israel’s Channel 2 television news. “If, within a month, nothing is progressing internally and externally, [Mr. Abbas] will say, ‘Guys, get to work.’”

The choice of Mr. Zahar as foreign minister could complicate that effort. Mr. Zahar — perhaps the most senior Hamas leader in Gaza alive after an Israeli assassination campaign two years ago — speaks English but is known to be a blunt hard-liner.

Mr. Siam, a relatively unknown political figure, will get control of most of the Palestinian security services and will be expected to address effective anarchy in the Gaza Strip.

Abdul Razeq, who recently was released from an Israeli jail, is an economics professor at An Najah University in Nablus, and will be responsible for coping with a looming budgetary crisis created by the cutoff of financial aid from the United States and Europe.

Mr. Haniyeh reportedly nominated a deputy, Nasser A-Din, to handle West Bank affairs because the Israelis refuse to allow the prime minister to travel between his Gaza Strip home and the West Bank.

If Mr. Abbas confirms the nominations, the Cabinet will be brought before the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament for what is expected to be routine approval.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the presentation of the Cabinet was a “moment of truth” for Mr. Abbas because he will have to decide whether to work with the Islamic militants or confront them.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called for the international community to send a clear message to the new Palestinian lawmakers that they must come to terms with Israel.

Israel has said that it will not deal with a Palestinian government run by Hamas.

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