Abbas swears in unity government

2014-06-02 18:30
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meets with cabinet members in the West Bank city of rael. (Majdi Mohammed, AP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meets with cabinet members in the West Bank city of rael. (Majdi Mohammed, AP)

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Ramallah - President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a Palestinian unity government on Monday, taking a major step toward ending a crippling split with his Hamas rivals, but also setting the stage for new friction with Israel and possibly with the West.

The brief ceremony at Abbas' West Bank headquarters was preceded by last-minute haggling over the 17-member Cabinet of technocrats, including three from Gaza who were prevented by Israel from attending, highlighting the volatile nature of the new alliance between the long-time foes.

Israeli leaders immediately condemned Abbas' alliance with Hamas. And while none of the Cabinet members are believed to be affiliated with Hamas, it remained unclear if the US and Europe will accept the new government.

Still, Abbas was upbeat about prospects for ending the territorial and political rift that erupted when the Islamic militant Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from him in 2007, leaving him only with the autonomous areas of the West Bank. For seven years, the rivals ran separate governments in their respective territories.

"This black page in our history has been turned forever and will never come back," he said before presiding over the Cabinet's first meeting.

Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister in Gaza, said that "we are starting a new era, based on unity and partnership in decision-making and work."

Despite the optimism, the new Cabinet faces many difficulties. Key disputes, including over how to meld rival security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, have not been resolved.

Abbas has no assurances that the US and Europe will keep sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid, money he needs to keep the new government afloat. The West considers Hamas a terrorist group, and the militants' support for the government could concern international donors.

Meanwhile, the new government will be even more expensive to maintain because Abbas has to blend tens of thousands of employees of two separate administrations.

Terrorists in suits

There was no immediate reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though ahead of the vote he urged the world to shun the new government because it is backed by Hamas. The group has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks over the years and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West.

Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line "Jewish Home" party, called it an illegitimate "government of terrorists in suits." He said the government had decided unanimously not to have contact with the Palestinians.

But Yair Lapid, another senior Cabinet minister, said Israel would have to study the new government in the coming weeks before making a decision. "It is not time for harsh words, but for caution and stability," he told his "Yesh Atid" party.

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog also urged the government not to rush into imposing sanctions on the Palestinians. "The top priority of Israel's security interests require the Palestinian Authority to be stable," he said.

The European Union and the US have withheld judgment, but said they would only deal with a Palestinian government that recognizes Israel, renounces violence and adheres to agreements signed by its predecessors.

Abbas reiterated Monday that his new government would accept these conditions, which have repeatedly been rejected by Hamas in the past.

Abbas also told the new Cabinet that security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank would continue, portraying it as a matter of Palestinian self-interest.

Palestinian militants, including those from Hamas, have been the targets of such coordination, and Hamas has repeatedly demanded that Abbas stop it.

An Israeli official left the door open to continued security ties, saying "much depends on to what extent Hamas enters the Palestinian security apparatus." He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal Israeli reaction.

Significant step

The formation of the unity government is the most significant step yet toward ending a political split that has weakened the Palestinian case for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967.

Over the past seven years, repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, even though the split is unpopular among Palestinians. In recent months, both factions had greater incentives to repair ties.

Hamas is in the midst of a major financial crisis due to a border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, while Abbas is in need of a political accomplishment following the collapse of peace talks with Israel in late April.

Abbas is seen as having the upper hand in the unity negotiations, largely because Hamas has run out of options because of its financial crisis.

Hamas made considerable concessions in agreeing to the overall Cabinet lineup. The 17 ministers, though nominally independents, are seen as either loyal to Abbas and his Fatah movement or to leftist PLO factions. None of the ministers is believed to have close ties to Hamas, observers say.

Rami Hamdallah, the current prime minister of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, will continue in his job. Hamdallah, 55, is largely seen as a figurehead, plucked from years in academia last year because of his loyalty to Abbas.

Four other senior ministers - economy, finance, interior and foreign affairs - also remain.

Rocket fire

While seemingly losing influence in the Cabinet, Hamas would be compensated by the reactivation of the Palestinian parliament next month. The parliament was elected in 2006 with a large Hamas majority but has been inactive since the split.

Three new Cabinet ministers from Gaza were unable to attend the West Bank swearing-in ceremony because of Israeli travel restrictions between the two territories. The West Bank and Gaza lie on opposite ends of Israel.

The Cabinet is to be temporary and prepare for general elections in 2015, though there are signs that neither side is eager to face presidential and parliamentary elections.

Despite Israel's misgivings, an Abbas foothold in Gaza could reduce ongoing cross-border tensions with Gaza.

Hamas has largely abided by an informal truce in recent years and halted rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, but at times failed to stop other militants from doing so. Eager to make a unity deal work, Hamas - which effectively remains in charge of Gaza's security - could step up its efforts.

Over the years, Hamas-Israel fighting flared up repeatedly. Israel has carried out a number of military offensives that killed hundreds of Palestinians, including civilians and Hamas operatives.

Read more on:    hamas  |  fatah  |  mahmoud abbas  |  palestine  |  middle east peace

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