- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday formally asked Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to form a new unity government and urged him to respect peace accords signed with Israel.

Mr. Haniyeh accepted the task of drawing up a new Cabinet at a joint press conference in Gaza aimed at forming a government that Palestinians hope will end factional fighting and overcome a paralyzing Western aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

“Mr. Ismail Haniyeh, we designate you to form the Palestinian government,” Mr. Abbas told Mr. Haniyeh, standing at his side, after Mr. Haniyeh formally resigned his post as prime minister in a procedural move to permit the creation of the coalition Cabinet.

Mr. Haniyeh has up to five weeks to form a government. He remains caretaker prime minister until a new Cabinet is formed.

Mr. Abbas told Mr. Haniyeh “I invite you to respect” past Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state, in language that echoed the wording of an agreement reached last week in talks hosted by Saudi Arabi between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas.

Mr. Haniyeh vowed to “work in accordance” with Mr. Abbas’ letter of designation and said he would begin contacts to form the government. He did not specifically say whether Hamas would drop its refusal to recognize the Jewish state or renounce violence, as the Quartet of Middle East power brokers demands.

A ban on direct Western financial assistance since Hamas came to power in March has pushed the Palestinian Authority to the brink of financial collapse.

The United States told Mr. Abbas earlier that it planned to boycott a Palestinian unity government, including non-Hamas ministers, unless international demands were met for policy changes toward Israel, Palestinian officials and diplomats said.

Mr. Abbas will attend a summit in Jerusalem on Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Envoys representing the Quartet — the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations — are expected to meet in Jerusalem today ahead of the summit.

A dispute over the composition of a unity Cabinet had disrupted talks Wednesday, prompting Mr. Abbas to put off an address he had been due to give about the new government.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the current Hamas-led government, said on Israeli Army Radio hours before Mr. Abbas’ announcement “there are a lot of problems,” over such issues as naming an interior minister, a post that oversees security services.

Another unresolved issue is the fate of Hamas’ 5,600-member “executive” police force. Fatah is pushing for the force to be broken up but Hamas wants to keep it together.

Fighting between Hamas and Fatah killed more than 90 Palestinians between December and February. Both movements cited the violence as a key reason for pursuing a power-sharing pact.

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