Palestinians form unity government

Palestinian factions announ­ced the formation on Thursday of a long-awaited national unity government, which they hope will ease an international boycott imposed on the Palestinian Authority when Hamas came to power a year ago.

Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s prime minister-designate in a cabinet in which his party, Fatah and minority factions will share power, is to submit his list to a parliamentary confidence vote on Saturday.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah president, who spent months forging the unity deal with Hamas, endorsed the list.

Israel, however, said it would continue to ostracise a PA government that included Hamas and urged the international community to do likewise. “We hope that the international community will stand steadfast behind its own principles and refuse to give legitimacy or recognition to this extreme government,” said Mark Regev, a foreign ministry spokesman.

Western aid donors suspended direct financial assistance to the PA after Hamas came to power in general elections. The international Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – has said the boycott will be lifted only if a new government recognised Israel, renounced violence and accepted existing agreements.

But since Hamas and Fatah agreed in principle in Mecca on February 8 to form a unity government, there has been a softening of Quartet solidarity, with Russia and some EU states urging a more positive stance towards the Palestinians.

The two Palestinian factions shelved their remaining differences, chiefly centred on the appointment of an interior minister, in order to reach a deal just inside a five-week deadline and ahead of an Arab summit in Riyadh on March 28 that will focus on a Saudi regional peace plan.

The new government will include a Fatah deputy prime minister, Azzam al-Ahmed, and a number of independent moderates, among them Salam Fayyad, who returns to the post of finance minister, and Ziad Abu Amr, a US-educated political scientist who will serve as foreign minister.

The government’s platform, which Mr Haniya will outline to parliament on Saturday, is expected to follow the principles agreed in Mecca, in which Hamas said it would “respect” existing agreements.

It is likely to reiterate the right of Palestinians to “resist” Israeli occupation.

The unity deal potentially strengthens the hand of the Palestinians at a time of renewed interest in a Saudi peace plan, which failed to make headway in the five years since it was adopted by the Arab League.

The plan offered Israel peace with the Arab world in return for all Arab land occupied in 1967.

Israel has adopted a more positive tone to the plan in recent days but has baulked at its reference to a right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes in Israel.

The plan, which also deals with the fate of Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, would return the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a wider regional context.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, who plans to return to the region this month, referred positively to the Saudi plan this week, saying: “The Israelis would have their own ideas about how an Israeli-Arab reconciliation could take place, but I think it is a favourable matter when people are talking about resolution of long-standing conflicts.”

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