Israel Critical of New Fatah-Hamas Cabinet

Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas have finally agreed on the makeup of a unity government. But Israel has quickly declared that it will have nothing to do with the new entity, calling it a "setback" to Middle East peace efforts.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

After months of factional bloodshed, rival Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, today agreed on a unity government. Palestinians hope the deal helps end internal violence and would help ease the international economic sanctions imposed after Hamas won elections last year.

The coalition did not meet key international demands for reform. And Israeli officials say the new government's agenda sets back the peace process.

From Jerusalem, Eric - NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: It's been a rough year in office for Hamas. Listed as a terrorist group by the West, the Hamas-led government quickly faced crippling sanctions and international isolation after sweeping the power in a landslide election win. Workers' salaries went unpaid. Poverty and lawlessness grew. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier last June sparked a new round of bloodshed with Israel. Then a vicious internal power struggle with its long-time rival, the more secular Fatah movement, left scores of civilians dead and led to political paralysis.

In announcing the makeup of the new power-sharing coalition with Fatah, Hamas leader and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh today sounded optimistic that the internal tensions were finally over.

Prime Minister ISMAIL HANIYEH (Palestinian Territories): (Through translator) We are full of hope that this new government opens up a new page for the Palestinian people, and we are closing the book on this last difficult period and all that happened in it.

WESTERVELT: The power-sharing coalition goes before parliament for final approval this weekend. Under the deal, Hamas gets nine cabinet posts; Fatah will get six. A huge stumbling block to finalizing the agreement reached in Saudi Arabia last month was agreeing on a new interior minister. The position in theory controls the disparate, dysfunctional and often contested Palestinian security forces.

The factions agreed to name Hani Kawasmi, an independent, to the key security post. He'll supervise what the new government's platform calls a comprehensive security plan to end all chaos in Gaza. That's a very tall order. Lawlessness and violence have taken deep root there. A veteran BBC correspondent kidnapped Monday in Gaza by masked gunmen remains missing.

On the economic front, Palestinians now are cautiously optimistic sanctions might be eased. Nabil Abu Rudeina(ph) is a close adviser to Fatah leader and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He says the coalition government will respect past agreements signed with Israel, one key demand by the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers.

Mr. NABIL ABU RUDEINA (Adviser): We are encouraging the Europeans and the Quartet as well, including the United States, to understand that this is the right moment to move towards the peace process.

WESTERVELT: But senior Israeli officials reacted with disappointment, saying an issue after issue, the new government's political platform represents a big step backwards toward militancy and extremism.

Mr. MARK REGA (Israel Foreign Ministry): I think anyone who reads the text, anyone just evaluates what's written there, will see that this is not a positive development.

WESTERVELT: Mark Rega with Israel's Foreign Ministry says the platform contains several strident and uncompromising positions.

Mr. REGA: You don't see explicitly or even implicitly moderate positions. On the contrary, you see a stubborn refusal to meet the three benchmarks of the international community, a refusal to accept Israel's right to exist, a refusal to renounce terrorism, and a refusal to accept the signed agreements in the peace process.

WESTERVELT: Rega says Israel absolutely will not deal with the new government. Asked if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will continue to talk separately with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Rega says Israel hasn't ruled that out, but hasn't ruled it in either.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Jerusalem.

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