- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The rival Fatah and Hamas movements yesterday agreed on a candidate for prime minister of their emerging coalition government, turning to a U.S.-educated professor to end months of infighting and help lift a painful international aid boycott.

The agreement was the strongest sign of progress in the negotiations, which have dragged on for months, but the government’s acceptance by the United States and European Union — both key aid donors — could hinge on whether it will recognize Israel and renounce violence.

The compromise to make Mohammed Shabir prime minister was announced in Syria by Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top official in Hamas’ exiled leadership. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah also supports the nomination, aides said.

Hamas and Fatah are hopeful that the 60-year-old Mr. Shabir, a soft-spoken intellectual with a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University, will help persuade Israel and the West to lift economic sanctions imposed after the Hamas-led government took office in March.

The international community says the Palestinian government must renounce violence, accept previous peace deals and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas has rejected these conditions repeatedly.

Mr. Shabir has never voiced his positions on Israel publicly, but colleagues describe him as pragmatic. Speaking to Israel’s Ha’aretz daily, he said he would act “realistically” if he is formally nominated.

Mr. Shabir is well-known in the Gaza Strip and has the stature to bridge the differences between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ more moderate Fatah. The power struggle between the sides has erupted into violence periodically.

Mr. Shabir was president of Gaza’s Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, for 15 years before retiring last year. In the high-profile position, he maintained good relations with Hamas.

Many senior Hamas officials worked or taught at the university. They include the current prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who was Mr. Shabir’s chief of staff. While thought to be sympathetic to Hamas, Mr. Shabir is not known to be a member.

Mr. Shabir also enjoys a good relationship with Fatah. When longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was alive, Mr. Shabir was a frequent visitor.

If formally nominated, Mr. Shabir would lead an emerging government of professionals — acceptable to the major political parties but independent of them — that Mr. Abbas hopes will satisfy the international demands.

Officials say the so-called technocrat government would take a vague position toward Israel and focus on internal Palestinian affairs, while allowing Mr. Abbas to pursue peace talks with Israel. Mr. Abbas was elected in a separate presidential vote last year.

Respected economist Salam Fayyad is being considered for the post of finance minister, a job he held until the Hamas-led government took office. Mr. Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, was credited with fighting mismanagement and cronyism.

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