Hamas Names Choice for Palestinian Prime Minister

Hamas presented a former university administrator on Monday as its choice to be the next Palestinian prime minister. Ismail Haniyeh has a reputation as a pragmatist who prefers compromise over conflict when dealing with Palestinian rivals.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later today officially announces the new Hamas prime minister. He's Ismail Haniyeh, considered something of a moderate within the militant Palestinian organization. Haniyeh has said he's hoping to put together a broad-based cabinet that would heal the divisions within the Palestinian leadership.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from Jerusalem. Hello.

ERIC WESTERVELT, reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about Ismail Haniyeh, and in particular, what experience does he have?

WESTERVELT: Well, Haniyeh is a 42-year-old father of 12. He grew up in a refugee camp on the Gaza Strip. After his family fled, what's now southern Israel during the 1948 War, since the early 90s he's served as the dean of the Gaza's Islamic University, which Hamas members played a really important role in creating. And he really comes out of that Islamist, militant, student movement there, Renee.

He went to high school at a religious institute in Gaza. But then went on to study at the Islamic University, where he became head of the student council. And during those student years, there were frequent political fights between Islamist students and the more secular student groups, that were then supported by the then ruling Fatah movement.

In his 20s, Renee, he was arrested several times by the Israeli security forces, and was briefly expelled to south Lebanon in 1992. And when he came back, he worked as an aide to Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. That was a formative period for Haniyeh. Yassin was killed by an Israeli air strike two years ago. And in fact, Haniyeh, himself, survived an earlier Israeli attempt to kill Yassin and others in 2003.

MONTAGNE: And he's something of a pragmatist compared to other Hamas leaders. Is he not?

WESTERVELT: That's right. He's seen as something of a more of a moderate, realistic strategist, less of a firebrand than some of the other Hamas leaders. For years, Haniyeh served as a mediator, liaison, so to speak, between Hamas and Fatah, honing skills that could prove now invaluable, as Hamas now takes power from Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for nearly four decades. By all accounts, he has a good working relationship with the Fatah-backed President Mahmoud Abbas. And that personal connection, Renee, could prove important, as he now leads the effort to appoint cabinet ministers and create a new Hamas government.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to how that process is going.

WESTERVELT: Well, it's going slowly. He has about five weeks to set up a government, but Haniyeh and others say it'll take less time. That would mean an Hamas government could be formed before Israelis go to the polls in late March. So far, the Fatah movement has declined to join with Hamas in any unity government, but talks are still ongoing.

It's important to point out that while Haniyeh is an important figure, Renee, he's just one leader. And he'll now have to maneuver and work with more hard-line militants, including Mahmoud Zahar and Hamas's political leader Khalid Mishal, who current lives in exile in Syria.

And the bottom line for many Israeli government officials is that Hamas remains, in its charter and rhetoric, committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. And officials say until Hamas gives up that call, disarms, and recognizes Israel, they won't have any direct talks with the Palestinian Authority. What acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sunday, called the New Terrorist Authority.

MONTAGNE: And that's also one of the reasons Israel has cut off the transfer of some $50 million a month in tax revenues, that it should go, or has normally gone to the Palestinians. Western governments are threatening to cut off aid. This is a huge challenge facing the Palestinian leadership.

WESTERVELT: That's right. And that challenge comes on top of the fact that the P.A., the Palestinian Authority, is already broke and has been for some time. For years, they've relied on about a billion dollars in foreign aid to run their programs, Renee, and meet the payrolls. The U.S. and Europe, as you've pointed out, say they will no longer support direct funding of a Hamas government. So Hamas is appealing to Muslim states to try to make up that shortfall. But it's not clear they can raise the needed funds.

Since 2002, Arab states have repeatedly failed to follow through on financial pledges, to help the Palestinian Authority under an Arab League plan. And that was when the Fatah movement was in power. So with Hamas in power, moderate Arab states will be under pressure not to fund Hamas. And that's part of what U.S. Secretary of State Rice is now doing in the region on a tour, trying to put some pressure on Hamas.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much.

NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem.

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