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Israel Lauds New Abbas Cabinet, but Many Questions Still Remain


Israel is welcoming the appointment of a new Palestinian government, but remains wary about what lies ahead.

Mahmoud Abbas lost no time responding to Hamas’ coup in Gaza last week, which took the world by surprise. Having fired his Islamist rivals from the government, the Palestinian Authority president on Sunday swore in a moderate new Cabinet aimed at ushering in renewed aid from Western donors.

“Today is a new era, a turning point for ending the siege and rebuilding the Palestinian Authority,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.

Salam Fayyad, a reform-minded economist with many friends in Washington, is the Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister.

He is joined by 12 other ministers, including two women, who were handpicked by Abbas, though they are not all nominally from his Fatah faction.

Hamas, which purged Fatah from Gaza in a six-day civil war last week, rejected the “emergency” government as a coup attempt and said the previous Cabinet under Ismail Haniyeh was still in force.

“This appointment is illegitimate and a violation of all national agreements,” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said.

But Abbas — who invoked presidential privilege to extend his new Cabinet’s term beyond the 30 days allowed under Palestinian Authority law — was hailed in Israel and beyond.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who traveled to the United States for consultations with President Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, spoke of a potential breakthrough in peace efforts with Abbas.

“A government that is not a Hamas government is a partner,” he told reporters. “This opens opportunities.”

But major hurdles still lie ahead.

Even if Israel, the Palestinians and the West reconcile themselves to dealing with the West Bank and Gaza as separate de facto entities, there is no guarantee of Abbas’ continued rule

in the former.

A restoration of donor aid would do much to shore him up in the eyes of his people. Most of that donor aid was cut off when Hamas was elected to power in January 2006.

So would safeguards, in terms of training and equipment, to prevent Fatah-linked forces in the West Bank from folding to Hamas the way they did in Gaza. Fatah has a much stronger presence in the West Bank than it did in Gaza.

Given Israel’s presence in the West Bank, new training and arms for Fatah there would require a green light from Jerusalem. But Olmert sounded circumspect.

“I look at the Fatah fighting now in Gaza, and I don’t see any of the commanders in the area,” he told The New York Times in an interview. “Where have they been?”

Everyone wants to “help the moderates and provide them with weapons,” he said. “But it’s another thing to ask yourself, ‘If I’m going to give weapons, and these weapons are going to be taken by Hamas, what am I doing?’ “

Jacob Walles, the U.S. diplomat who deals with Abbas, told Reuters that Washington would see “no obstacles” to fully re-engaging with the Palestinian Authority under the new government. An end to the aid embargo imposed by the Quartet of foreign mediators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — would be sure to follow.

Yet it remained unclear how much, if any, funding would reach Gaza now that it is effectively a Hamas fiefdom.

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities are trying to figure out how best to deal with Gaza. A major Israeli energy firm, Dor Alon, announced Sunday it was cutting back fuel supplies to Gaza.

“We should simply increase the isolation of Gaza from Judea and Samaria,” National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. “I want to stop everything until we understand what is going on there.”

But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said there were no plans for a complete strangleho! ld on th e impoverished Gaza Strip.

“We won’t cut off electricity and water. We won’t add to the crisis,” Sneh told Israel Radio, but added: “Israel is not Ismail Haniyeh’s welfare office.”

There is always a military option, something Ehud Barak will have to deal with when he is confirmed as Israel’s new defense minister Monday.

Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that Barak already has drawn up plans for a major Gaza invasion to crush Hamas should it dramatically step up cross-border rocket salvos or resume suicide bombings.

But Hamas, for now, appears loath to enter a new confrontation with Israel. Instead it is expected to try to consolidate its Gaza power base, coax Abbas into a new coalition and smuggle in arms from Egypt for a future war.

That leaves the option of drawing foreign peacekeepers into southern Gaza, an idea Olmert has proposed and will try to develop in his talks with Ban and Bush. He meets with Ban on Monday and Bush on Tuesday.

While those meetings were scheduled long before last week’s war among the Palestinians, they are certain to take on a new urgency as Israel, the United States and the world community figure out how to deal with a new reality.

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