Israel Skeptical of Hamas-Fatah 'Unity Government'

David Dolan | Correspondent | Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Israel Skeptical of Hamas-Fatah 'Unity Government'

Jerusalem ( - Israeli officials are reacting with skepticism to reports that the radical Islamic Hamas movement has decided to indirectly recognize the state of Israel as part of a deal to form a national unity government with the Palestinian Authority's Fatah party and two other groups.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Monday that he had forged a deal with senior Hamas politicians to being setting up such a government later this week. He told reporters in Gaza City that "the national interest requires that all our people unite so we can achieve victory by establishing our independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital."

After winning Palestinian parliamentary elections last January, Hamas formed a P.A. government that excluded the long-dominant Fatah party headed by Abbas. Subsequent tensions between the rival Palestinian movements spilled over into violent street clashes on several occasions, putting mounting public pressure on both groups to settle their differences and form a unity coalition.

Israeli political analysts say a financial aid embargo against the Hamas government by the United States, the European Union and other major foreign donors has acted as another strong incentive for the establishment of a unity government. Thousands of P.A. workers have not received their paychecks since the Hamas-led government was formed last March.

According to P.A. officials, the new national unity coalition will be headed by current Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, but it also will include four or five Fatah ministers along with representatives from several smaller political parties.

Palestinian Legislative Council member Hannan Ashrawi, who broke away from Fatah to establish a small reformist party last year, reportedly will be named P.A. foreign minister.

Analysts say her appointment would be a significant concession by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, particularly since she is a female who comes from an Anglican Christian background.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told Cybercast News Service that any new Palestinian government "must accept the three conditions for international recognition that were spelled out earlier this year by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan: Full recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism, and acceptance of all previously signed peace process agreements with Israel, including the road map."

Regev added that missing IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who snuck into Israel territory through an underground tunnel from the Gaza Strip on June 25, must also be set free before Israel could "consider recognizing any P.A. government that included Hamas members."

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said that if all these conditions were met, it would be "a very significant development that would provide new momentum in the peace process, and put Israeli-Palestinian relations back on the right track."

However Regev added that "anything short of that is only a recipe for further stagnation, which won't serve either Israeli or Palestinian interests."

An unnamed American State Department official was quoted in Tuesday's Jerusalem Post newspaper as saying that the Bush administration would withhold recognition of any new P.A. government unless it met the three conditions spelled out earlier this year by Annan.

Those conditions were agreed upon by officials from the "quartet" peace plan sponsors -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

According to media reports, the Palestinian unity government deal proposed by Abbas and Haniyeh includes Hamas acceptance of a peace plan unveiled in 2002 at an Arab League summit meeting in Beirut.

That plan called for a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, implying ultimate Arab world acceptance of Israel's right to exist in the mainly Muslim Middle East alongside a Palestinian state.

Israeli media reports said the Palestinian unity government's new guidelines will mention only that Hamas "recognizes the existing political reality in the region."

Israeli political analysts say such a vague statement probably will not be accepted by Israeli government leaders as sufficient to fulfill the quartet's condition that the P.A. must formally accept Israel's permanent existence.

The new Palestinian government guidelines reportedly state that the Hamas movement's acceptance of the Arab League peace plan will continue only "so long as it serves Palestinian interests."

According to many Israeli analysts, the clause signals that there has been no major change in the radical group's bedrock rejection of Israel. Instead, they say Hamas is offering only tactical concessions meant to reopen the vital foreign financial-aid spigot.

Analysts noted that Hamas officials are still resisting attempts by Abbas to get them to fully accept the quartet's conditions for recognizing any P.A. government that includes Hamas members.

They cite a statement given to the Haaretz newspaper by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri soon after the Palestinian leader announced the unity government deal on Monday. He was quoted as admitting that Hamas "would like to have the aid embargo lifted, but we will not surrender to external dictates" to accomplish that goal.

Hamas cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamad told Israel's Army Radio on Tuesday that the planned P.A. unity coalition will have "no problem holding peace talks with Israel" designed to set up a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But he added that Hamas would not necessarily view the establishment of such a state "as the end of the conflict."

Israeli analysts said the comment further demonstrates that Hamas wants to appear moderate enough to secure desperately needed Western financial aid without really abandoning its founding charter's call for Israel's ultimate destruction.

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