Palestinians OK coalition
A power-sharing deal by rival factions won approval of the Palestinian parliament Saturday, ending a year of one-party rule by the militant Hamas movement and producing the first crack in an international aid embargo against the Palestinian Authority.
Moments after the Palestinian Legislative Council’s vote of confidence, Norway recognized the new coalition government and said it was restoring political and economic ties. They were cut off after Hamas came to power last year and refused to renounce calls for Israel’s destruction.
Norway’s left-of-center government became the first to break with an international boycott led by the United States and European Union, and its announcement raised expectations that other European countries would follow suit. Norway is not an EU member but has long been an active player in Middle East diplomacy and a contributor to the Palestinian Authority.
Members of the Palestinian parliament jumped to a standing ovation after giving the coalition of Hamas, its more moderate rival Fatah and some smaller parties an 83-3 vote of confidence after two hours of debate. Later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the 25-member Cabinet.
The power-sharing accord, aimed at ending the embargo and months of deadly fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen, embodied conflicting stances toward Israel that were starkly evident in speeches to the video-linked session of lawmakers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We reject all forms of violence,” Abbas, the Fatah leader, declared as he opened the session at parliamentary headquarters in Gaza City. “We extend our hand once more to reach a settlement [with Israel] that will give future generations a hope of peaceful coexistence.”
Following him to the lectern, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas spelled out a new government program that called for extending a 4-month-old truce with Israel in Gaza to the West Bank. But he yielded no ground on Hamas’ founding principle of hostility to the Jewish state.
“The government affirms that resistance in all its forms to the occupation is a legitimate right,” said Haniyeh, who retained his position at the head of the government. “It is the right of our people to defend itself in the face of continuing Israeli aggression.”
Despite Hamas’ unbending ideology and dominant role in the coalition, some Western nations have indicated a willingness to give the new government a chance.
After Hamas won elections last year, the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators -- backed an aid embargo, saying it would be lifted only if the Palestinian government recognized Israel, renounced violence and accepted previous Arab-Israeli peace agreements.
Hamas’ only concessions in the program announced Saturday were a declaration that the government would “respect” those peace accords and the addition of the words “especially nonviolent resistance” to the sentence in the program about resisting Israeli occupation by any means.
Abbas says he has brought the government closer to meeting international demands. He argues that only he, as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is empowered to negotiate with Israel and that any peace accord would be submitted to Palestinian voters for approval in a referendum.
In announcing Norway’s recognition of the new government, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere accepted Abbas’ logic. He said the Palestinians were “taking important steps toward complying with the international community’s demands,” the Associated Press reported from Oslo.
Stoere said he expected Palestinian authorities to abide by the quartet’s conditions, and he called on Israel to “take a constructive approach to the unity government.”
But Israeli officials cited Haniyeh’s remarks Saturday to reaffirm their refusal to work with his new government, even as they continue, with U.S. endorsement, to hold talks with Abbas.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres asked on Israel Radio: “If this is a government that does not renounce terror, why should it be helped?”
International opposition to the Palestinian government began eroding after the power-sharing accord was sealed last month during negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The Russian Foreign Ministry said last week that the new government’s program “took into account” the quartet’s conditions for lifting the boycott.
France has invited the new Palestinian foreign minister, Ziad abu Amr, to visit Paris. The British Foreign Office has called the formation of the new government a positive step and said it plans to have contacts with non-Hamas officials of the Cabinet. Egypt and Qatar called Saturday for an end to the boycott.
Representatives from Norway, Germany, Portugal, Jordan, Egypt, Chile, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, the EU and the United Nations attended the parliamentary session as observers.
The EU and the United Nations welcomed the new government but said a resumption of aid would depend on an assessment of its actions.
“This is a significant step in the right direction,” Alvaro de Soto, special U.N. coordinator for the Middle East, told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “We will be watching with interest to see how this program is implemented.”
The United States, which has followed Israel’s lead, remained cool to the new government.
“The national unity government’s platform reference to the right of resistance is disturbing and contradicts the quartet principle of renunciation of violence,” State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to return to Israel late this week for a new round of talks with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But the Bush administration’s position on the embargo is crucial because the United States could use restrictions on banks to prevent other countries from sending funds directly to the new Palestinian government.
Salam Fayyad, the politically independent former World Bank official who was sworn in Saturday as finance minister, said the new government would be unable to function without international aid.
“There’s no question we do face a very serious and crippling financial crisis,” he told reporters in Ramallah. “We will make every effort with the international community ... in the hope of getting the assistance we need to make it possible for us to function and function effectively.”
But he added: “I have no assurances.”
The new Cabinet has 10 ministers from Hamas, six from Fatah and nine who are independent or represent smaller factions.
Like the parliamentary session, their swearing-in ceremony was held simultaneously in Gaza City and Ramallah, with a video link, because Israeli travel bans prevented the government ministers from gathering in one place.
The parliament has 132 members, but 41 are in Israeli jails. Most of those held are Hamas members who were arrested because Israel, like the United States, considers their movement a terrorist organization.
Special correspondents Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.