Palestinian prime minister reinstated

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reappointed his Western-backed prime minister Tuesday, a move that aims to shore up Abbas' stature in Washington but dims the chances of reuniting the Palestinian territories and rebuilding the Gaza Strip.

By swearing in Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and 19 other Cabinet ministers, Abbas moved to end weeks of disarray in his West Bank-based administration and distance it further from Hamas' rival government in Gaza before he meets in Washington next week with President Obama.

The Palestinian factional rift has complicated efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Obama, trying to revive peace talks, met in Washington on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Late Tuesday, Israeli fighter jets and helicopters carried out 10 airstrikes against groups of Hamas fighters, suspected weapons factories and smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, officials in Gaza said. Four Palestinians were injured in the strikes, which followed a rocket attack from Gaza that damaged a house in the Israeli city of Sderot.

Hamas, an Islamic group committed to Israel's destruction, shared power with Abbas' secular Fatah party for several months in 2007. After factional fighting drove Fatah forces out of Gaza that year, Abbas named his own government in the West Bank, made up of people affiliated with neither faction. He has since tried periodically to make amends with Hamas.

Prime Minister Fayyad announced in March that he was stepping aside to facilitate the latest round of power-sharing talks. His move brought down the West Bank government, but Abbas kept it in place provisionally while Egyptian-sponsored talks with Hamas proceeded in Cairo.

After four rounds, however, the talks are at an impasse. Abbas' delegates have insisted that any government representing Hamas should satisfy the conditions of the so-called quartet of Mideast peace makers -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. That means recognizing Israel's right to exist, renouncing all violence and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. Hamas has rejected those conditions.

Palestinian officials said Abbas had little choice but to reappoint a West Bank-only government in time for next week's meeting with Obama.

Fayyad, a Texas-trained economist and former World Bank official who belongs to no political party, is widely respected in the West as a crusader against the kind of corruption that plagued previous Fatah-led governments. Abbas wanted to assure U.S. officials that the Palestinian Authority is still a viable peace partner and that Fayyad remains in charge of the West Bank's finances and security services, Abbas' aides said.

Mouin Rabbani, an independent Palestinian analyst based in Jordan, said Abbas also may have calculated that if his peace talks with Israel resume and the Obama administration pushes hard for a resolution, Hamas will lose popularity among Palestinians and no longer be viewed as a necessary partner in governing.

That assumption will be tested over the next six to 12 months, Rabbani said, and in the meantime, he added, "I can't see Abbas agreeing to unity with Hamas."

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Abbas of sabotaging the power-sharing talks "to satisfy the Americans and the Zionists." He called the reshuffled government that was sworn in Tuesday illegal.

The ongoing rift threatens to keep Gaza cut off from much of the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors to rebuild the coastal enclave after Israel's devastating 22-day winter offensive against Hamas. Many donor countries insist that their funds go through Abbas' administration rather than directly to Gaza.

Abbas' appointments also created problems in the West Bank. Senior Fatah leaders refused to support the new government because they did not want to derail the talks with Hamas or were dissatisfied with the nine positions offered to their movement in the 20-member Cabinet.

Two Fatah appointees refused to join. Many in the movement opposed Fayyad's reappointment, saying the prime minister should be a Fatah activist.


Abukhater is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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