P.A. Forms Government Amid Israeli Skepticism

The Palestinians’ new unity government may well achieve its immediate aim of healing factional rifts between Hamas and Fatah, but whether it can break up the international isolation of the Palestinian Authority remains unclear.

After a year in which they fought each other more than Israel and sank under a Western embargo, the Hamas-Fatah coalition was installed over the weekend.

The big question is whether Hamas has really changed direction or merely sees the more moderate Fatah as a fig leaf to cover its diehard hostility to Israel.

As far as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is concerned, the answer is clear.

“The platform of the new government includes very problematic elements that cannot be acceptable to Israel or to the international community,” he told his Cabinet on Sunday, shortly before it voted to continue a boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

Olmert reiterated Israel’s refusal to deal with the new P.A. government until it accepts demands, set by the Quartet of foreign mediators, to recognize the Jewish state and renounce terrorism.

He also said he would limit contacts with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader who had long been Israel’s designated peace partner.

“We expect that the international community will not be led astray by the creation of the coalition government,” Olmert said.

If there was a note or urgency to this appeal, it may have come in response to signs that some Western nations could abandon an aid and diplomatic boycott imposed on the Palestinian

Authority after Hamas took power last March.

While the U.S. State Department voiced alarm at the Palestinian Authority’s continued embrace of violent “resistance” against Israel, Washington officials said they may talk to its new finance minister, Salam Fayyad, a reformer who is not from Hamas.

France invited P.A. Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr, another political independent, to visit Paris, and diplomats said Britain was expected to pursue contacts with

non-Hamas members of the new government.

Still, a full resumption of direct aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority would require consensus among the Quartet the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

While Moscow has called for the embargo to be abandoned, its partners have adopted a wait-and-see approach to how, and if, the Palestinian Authority pursues diplomacy with Israel.

Amr argued that Hamas, by endorsing Abbas’ efforts to negotiate with Israel, had indirectly approved of coexistence between the Jewish state and a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The recognition of Israel is included in the various articles of the program,” Amr told The Jerusalem Post.

“If Israel wants recognition, it has to recognize the Palestinians as well,” he said. “Today there is no excuse for anybody not to accept the government unless they want us to remain slaves of

occupation and Israel, which will never happen.”

In fact, Hamas refuses to abandon its 1988 charter calling for Israel’s destruction and has publicly described the alliance with Fatah as a “transitional” measure.

That has stoked contrary instincts even within the Israeli government, with some of Olmert’s coalition partners calling for a boycott of Abbas along with Hamas, and others urging stepped-up diplomacy with the P.A. president, known familiarly as Abu Mazen.

“It would be better that there be no contact with the new Palestinian government, including Abu Mazen, who in effect provides a cover for the new government,” said Strategic Affairs

Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party.

But several members of the center-left Labor Party, the senior partner to Olmert’s Kadima, said now was the time for Israel to empower Palestinian moderates by engaging Abbas.

“If we want to hurt Hamas politically and militarily, we must open negotiations with Hamas’ rival, Abu Mazen a real negotiation that the Palestinian people will perceive as providing a diplomatic horizon,” said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh of Labor.

For now, Israel may join the Quartet in extending hope for a breakthrough. The forum may be the Arab League summit in Riyadh at month’s end, where a Saudi proposal for comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace is to be discussed.

Under the proposal, Israel would win recognition from all Arab states in exchange for a full withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and an agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Israel has voiced reservations about the phrasing of the proposal, but the possibility that it would co-opt the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority to a full peace deal could now be a major draw for Jerusalem.

But Israel’s sole Arab minister said the Olmert government should make its openness to rapprochement clear through greater openness toward the new Palestinian Authority.

“Normalization with the Arab world is what we fought for all of these years,” said Galeb

Majadele. “If, God forbid, we now give even a minimal impression of rejectionism, how will we face the entire world in another two weeks after the Riyadh summit?”

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