Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally asked Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Thursday to form a new unity government and urged him to respect peace accords signed with Israel.
Haniyeh accepted the task of drawing up a new cabinet at a joint news conference in Gaza aimed at launching a government that Palestinians hope will end factional fighting and overcome a paralysing Western aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority.
“Mr. Ismail Haniyeh, we designate you to form the Palestinian government,” Abbas told Haniyeh, standing at his side, after Haniyeh formally resigned his post as prime minister in a procedural move to permit the launch of the coalition cabinet.
Haniyeh has up to five weeks to form a government. He remains caretaker prime minister until a new cabinet is formed.
Abbas told Haniyeh “I invite you to respect” past Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state, in language that echoed the wording of an agreement reached last week in talks hosted by Saudi Arabi between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.
Haniyeh vowed to “work in accordance” with Abbas’s letter of designation and said he would launch contacts to form the government. He did not specifically say whether Hamas would drop its refusal to recognise the Jewish state or renounce violence, as the “Quartet” of Middle East power brokers demands.
Abbas aides: U.S. may rebuff coalition
Aides to Abbas said earlier on Thursday that U.S. diplomats told them Washington plans to shun a future Hamas-Fatah coalition government because it will not explicitly recognize Israel.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. would not make judgments about the unity government before it is formed and has an official platform. The Bush administration also will watch the government’s actions once it takes office, he said.
If the U.S. decides to rebuff a new Hamas-Fatah government, it would be a severe blow to Abbas. The Fatah moderate leader has been trying to implement a power-sharing deal with Hamas to end Palestinian infighting and lift crippling international sanctions against the government.
Rivals reach accord in Saudi
Last week, the two political rivals reached a coalition agreement in Saudi Arabia, and the Hamas-led government was expected to resign later Thursday to pave the way for a unity government.
Washington had previously withheld judgment on the power-sharing deal.
Abbas’ aides said he received word of the new U.S. position in a phone call from Assistant Secretary of State David Welch late Wednesday. Jacob Walles, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, then delivered the same message to Abbas in person on Thursday, the aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
While the U.S. government said it would not deal with the coalition government, it would still maintain ties with Abbas and his office, his aides said.
Abbas planned to meet Saturday with Welch and Sunday with visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to change their minds, the aides said. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are also scheduled to hold a joint meeting with Rice on Monday.
Quartet's principles at issue
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat would only say that U.S. officials have made it clear to the Palestinians that any government must adhere to the principles laid out by the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — recognize Israel, renounce violence and back previous peace deals with Israel.
The Saudi accord reached last week says only that the future government would “respect” past agreements.
Erekat met with senior U.S. officials in Washington last week to prepare for the three-way Mideast summit in Jerusalem on Monday. He also was involved in the meeting Thursday between Abbas and the U.S. diplomat.
“The Americans reiterated their position that their relations with the government will depend on the government’s compliance with the Quartet’s principles,” he said.
Hamas official not surprised
Yehia Moussa, a top Hamas lawmaker, said he was not surprised by the Abbas aides’ comments of a U.S. rejection of the deal.
“We expect the United States to lead an aggressive stance against us,” he said.
Olmert told Turkish television that Israel was not happy with the coalition agreement. “I am not certain that the full scope of this agreement is clear to anyone, the initial signs are not very encouraging,” he said.
However, he told reporters that he wanted to maintain ties with Abbas, who is widely known by his nickname, Abu Mazen.
“I am against cutting off ties with Abu Mazen,” he said. “Abu Mazen was elected directly and his authority derives from this. I don’t see anything to deter a meeting with Abu Mazen. He is committed to the Quartet principles and the road map (peace plan).”
The Hamas government was set to resign after last-minute demands by the militant group had been resolved, said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent who is expected to serve as foreign minister in the new Cabinet.
The power-sharing deal brokered last week in Saudi Arabia cleared the way for the formation of a Hamas-Fatah coalition. It seeks to end a deadly power struggle centered in Gaza that has killed more than 130 people since May, injured hundreds and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Palestinian officials hoped the deal would also lead to a lifting of international sanctions that were imposed on the government after Hamas’ election last year.
But foreign governments said they would wait to study the agreement and to see if the new government had the will — or ability — to prevent ongoing attacks on Israel, including rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.