Palestinian Legislators Approve Unity Cabinet

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 18, 2007

JERUSALEM, March 17 -- The Palestinian parliament approved a government Saturday that shares power between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements, whose enduring differences over how to resolve their long conflict with Israel remained on display as the new cabinet took office.

Addressing lawmakers in Gaza City, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader, said the new government is "extending its hand wide open, calling for peace and equality" with Israel. He called on the Jewish state to make "a mutual commitment to stop all violence."

Abbas also urged international donors to end the economic aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority that has been in place since Hamas took control of the government nearly a year ago. Hours later, he swore in the 25-member cabinet.

"This national unity wedding has received an Arab and international welcome, which we hope will be transformed into practical steps to end the siege," Abbas said.

But Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, speaking shortly after Abbas, said the new government "affirms that resistance in all its forms, including popular resistance to occupation, is a legitimate right of the Palestinian people."

The difference in tone highlighted the internal political challenge confronting the new government, whose most urgent task is to end the international isolation of the Palestinian Authority at a time of rising poverty and unemployment in the territories.

The power-sharing arrangement has, at least temporarily, ended the factional fighting that has killed about 130 Palestinians over the past year. But the new government's platform falls short of international demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence in return for a resumption of economic aid.

Lawmakers convened in Gaza and the West Bank city of Ramallah to approve the new cabinet, the second since Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 elections.

The sessions were linked by videoconference because Israel prohibits Hamas legislators in Gaza from traveling to the West Bank. Israel also continues to hold 38 Palestinian lawmakers in prison, nearly all of them Hamas members from the West Bank arrested for belonging to an illegal organization.

Abbas reversed himself last month by agreeing to have his secular Fatah party join a Hamas-led government, a decision he made largely to end the factional fighting. He had rejected an earlier invitation from Hamas to participate in the cabinet immediately after the 2006 elections.

Fatah has been the driving force behind past accords with Israel, which the new government has pledged to "respect." But Hamas, an Islamic movement that maintains a potent armed wing, has declined to recognize the Jewish state.

Hamas leaders have instead suggested a long-term truce with Israel in return for its withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

In his speech, Haniyeh said the new government would work to expand the nearly four-month-old cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza to the more populous West Bank, a position Israeli officials dismissed.

"President Abbas accepts the three international principles and Prime Minister Haniyeh not only doesn't accept them, but calls openly for Palestinian resistance -- that is, for Palestinians to commit terror against Israel," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Israel will not recognize or deal with such a government."

Israeli officials have called on foreign donors to maintain the aid embargo until the government meets the international conditions. But splits appear to be emerging within the group of Middle East peace mediators made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations over whether to work with the unity government. European and Russian officials have endorsed the new cabinet as a step toward meeting international conditions.

Although maintaining the prime minister post, Hamas has ceded control of the important Finance, Foreign and Interior ministries. In all, Hamas and Fatah will control most of the ministries with about seven seats going to minor parties and independents.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company