- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

JERUSALEM — Hamas and Fatah yesterday finalized a unity Cabinet aimed at ending sectarian clashes and breaking an international political boycott of the Palestinian government.

Israel swiftly rejected the new government, saying Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ deal with Hamas had disappointed them and undermined his standing as a peace interlocutor.

The agreement on a joint Cabinet and policy platform will force members of the international Quartet of peace mediators to reconsider whether to continue a year-old ban on ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

“We are optimistic and believe that this government will open up a new era,” said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as he submitted the line-up of ministers to Mr. Abbas at a meeting in Gaza City.

The new government, which must still be approved by parliament in a vote tomorrow, places a slate of political independents in senior Cabinet positions that had been occupied by controversial Hamas politicians.

While the government’s policy guidelines mention respecting peace agreements with Israel, they reaffirm a Palestinian right to defend themselves against Israeli forces.

Israel complained that the platform doesn’t meet three conditions set by the so-called Quartet of international peace mediators for an end to a boycott on international aid — commitments to uphold the peace accords, recognize the Jewish state and renounce violence. The Quartet includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Both the United States and the European Union reacted coolly to the announcement.

White House spokesman Tony Snow indicated there would be no change in the Bush administration’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian government unless its platform changed.

“Our position has been consistent, which is, you need a Palestinian government that is going to, in fact, abide by the Quartet conditions,” Mr. Snow said, according to the Associated Press.

EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said the European Commission had yet to assess the new Palestinian government’s program.

Russian foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin, however, welcomed the announcement, calling it an “important event.” Arab countries also welcomed the new unity coalition.

The Palestinians are hoping the Europeans will work with the new government, a development that would isolate Israel and the United States.

The formation of a Cabinet was held up for weeks by wrangling over the sensitive position of interior minister, which holds responsibility for the security services. The sides finally agreed on Hani al-Qawasami, an independent academic who is considered sympathetic to Hamas.

The outgoing Hamas interior minister had angered Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party by setting up a separate security force in Gaza loyal to the Islamic militants.

The finance minister will be Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official who instituted reforms to make the Palestinian budget more transparent before running for parliament. Ziyad Abu Amr, a political-science professor and legislator, was selected as foreign minister, replacing Hamas hard-liner Mahmoud Zahar.

But the changes did not impress observers in Israel. A spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that even though Israel will continue to work with Mr. Abbas because of his standing as the elected leader of the Palestinians and his moderate credentials, they will not discuss “issues of substance” regarding peace.

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