Palestinians OK Unity Govt

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Hisham Abu Taha & Mohammed Mar’i, Arab News

Published — Sunday 18 March 2007

Last Update 18 March 2007 3:00 am

GAZA CITY, 18 March 2007 — The new Hamas-Fatah unity government won overwhelming Parliament approval yesterday, clearing a final formal hurdle before taking on the challenge of persuading a skeptical world to end a crippling yearlong boycott of the Palestinian government.

After the 83-3 vote announced, lawmakers jumped up from their seats and clapped. In all, Parliament has 132 members, but 41 are in Israeli detention.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah yesterday telephoned President Mahmoud Abbas and Premier Ismail Haniyeh to congratulate them on the formation of the unity government. Abdullah hoped that the new government would work for achieving a settlement based on UN resolutions and the Arab peace plan. He hoped that the formation of the unity government would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and bring about peace and stability throughout the region.

Presenting the government’s program to Parliament, Prime Minister Haniyeh of Hamas said the coalition wants to set up a Palestinian state in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War. He said the Palestinians affirm the right to resist occupation, but will also seek to expand a truce with Israel.

With its mixed messages, the platform fell short of international conditions for acceptance, including explicit recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence.

Israel reiterated yesterday that it will not deal with the new government.

However, Norway, a major donor to the Palestinian government in the past, announced shortly after the vote that it recognizes the new coalition and will deal with it, said incoming Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti. A Norwegian diplomat in the West Bank confirmed the decision, and said an official announcement was being made in Oslo.

A senior UN official also signaled flexibility. “This is a significant step in the right direction,” said the UN’s Mideast envoy Alvaro de Soto, who attended the session. “We will be watching with interest to see how this program is implemented.”

The Parliament met simultaneously in Gaza City and in Ramallah, with a video link. Palestinian lawmakers cannot meet in one place because of Israeli travel bans. The coalition replaces a government led by the Hamas movement which swept parliamentary elections last year. Hamas’ ascent to power drew down bruising international sanctions meant to pressure it to recognize Israel and accept past peace accords.

The new government “respects” previous international agreements reached by the Palestine Liberation Oorganization and calls for peace talks to be conducted by Abbas, a moderate. Any future deal could be submitted to a national referendum, suggesting that Hamas would not be given veto power.

Haniyeh said the government wants to expand a cease-fire with Israel, yet also “affirms that resistance in all its means, including the popular resistance against occupation” is a Palestinian right. Popular resistance is jargon for demonstrations and other nonviolent protests.

In his speech to the Parliament, Abbas said yesterday that the Palestinian people “reject violence in all its forms” and seek a comprehensive peace “based on negotiations.”

Abbas said the Palestinians extend their hand to Israel “to achieve the peace of freedom and equality,” and urge it to make a “mutual commitment...to stop all violence.” The two speeches underscored that even though the ideological gaps between Hamas and Fatah are narrowing, fundamental differences remain.

Soon after the Parliament vote, Abbas swore in the 25-member Cabinet, formed after months of stop-and-go negotiations interrupted by periods of deadly factional fighting that claimed more than 140 lives.

Brushing aside international misgivings about Fatah joining forces with Hamas, Abbas has said it’s the only way to avert a civil war in the West Bank and Gaza.

Haniyeh also addressed these misgivings in his speech, acknowledging the new government’s path will be a difficult one. “The challenges are many, and so are the difficulties,” he said, “All are waiting to see what the national unity government will offer, will it be up to the challenge.”

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel will deal with Abbas, but not with the new government unless it recognizes the Jewish state. “Israel has openly stated in its government program a two-state solution, (two states) alongside each other,” Eisin said. Israeli officials have said they would try to persuade the world not to deal with the government.

However, international reaction has been cautious. Russia has been the most positive, saying the new Palestinian government has taken international demands “into account.” The British Foreign Office called the formation of a national unity government “a step in the right direction.” But a spokesman stopped short of endorsing the new government’s platform.

— With input from agencies

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