- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An influential Palestinian lawmaker visiting Washington urged the Obama administration to accept a government for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that would bridge divisions between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Mustafa Barghouthi, a member of the Palestinian parliament and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, blamed the Bush administration and Israel for the collapse of the previous unity government, which lasted three months in 2007.

“They never gave the national unity government a chance,” Mr. Barghouthi, who was minister of information in the short-lived Cabinet, said in an interview this week.

Despite some early signs of support, Hamas’ inclusion in the government led the Bush administration to adopt Israel’s strategy of isolating the militant group, rather than engaging it in the political process. This time, Washington’s blessing - or at least a lack of opposition - will be crucial, Mr. Barghouthi said.

“I’m not asking them to deal with Hamas, but I’m asking them to say that they accept a national unity government with a good, flexible program,” he said. “They shouldn’t be repeating what’s not working. The U.S. can’t do only what Israel wants.”

Washington refuses to deal directly with Hamas because the Islamist group is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

The U.S. cannot afford to continuing dealing only with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas because he has been weakened by Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza, Mr. Barghouthi said. “You have to deal with the whole Palestinian spectrum.”

Gaza has been under Hamas control since June 2007. Mr. Abbas and the Fatah-led Cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad govern in the West Bank.

The Obama administration has said it will not deal with Hamas, but it has not made a decision whether to support a unity government.

Choosing his language carefully, State Department spokesman Robert Wood spoke of “the importance of the Palestinians’ coming together in some way and being willing to work with the Israelis.”

Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, said a unity government could be achieved by appointing ministers who are not members of any political faction but are technocrats or other independents who have the backing of all parties.

Several countries in the Middle East and Europe have welcomed upcoming talks on a Palestinian unity government in Cairo, which are scheduled to begin Feb. 22.

Egypt, which helped broker a cease-fire in Gaza, has “actively engaged all Palestinian factions” ahead of the talks, said Karim Haggag, spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

The two main tasks of a unity government will be to rebuild Gaza and to prepare for new Palestinian elections, he said. Jordan has also welcomed the talks.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries that have with diplomatic relations with Israel.

In Europe, France supports national unity talks.

“We are very much in favor of a national reconciliation government,” said French Embassy spokesman Emmanuel Lenain.

Analysts said Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations could not take place in ernest as long as the Palestinians are divided.

“There is no clear system of government right now, and Mr. Abbas is in no position to make difficult decisions,” said Rob Malley, program director for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a challenge for U.S. policy.”

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