Omar Karmi
The National
May 21, 2009 - 12:00am

The swearing-in of a new, extended cabinet by Mahmoud Abbas is a “deliberate attempt” to undermine ongoing unity talks in Cairo, Hamas said yesterday.

Mr Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, swore in the cabinet on Tuesday evening. The new government, which in effect will rule only over the parts of the occupied West Bank not under direct Israeli control, is headed by Salam Fayyad, who also led the previous Palestinian administration.

Officials from Mr Abbas’s office say the government is meant only as a transitional administration until the national reconciliation dialogue is over. Cairo has set a July deadline for the conclusion of those talks.

Mr Fayyad, a former World Bank official, had resigned in early March at the beginning of the reconciliation negotiations in Cairo, vowing to stay on only until the conclusion of those talks or the end of the month, whichever came first.

At the time, Mr Fayyad, who has been publicly backed by western countries including the United States, was seen to have placed himself in a win-win position: if the Cairo talks succeeded, he would be seen as having helped that success, and if not, he would probably be asked to form a new government.

And as the Cairo talks foundered over disagreements on almost all the fundamental issues separating the main Palestinian political factions – Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas, which since it ousted Fatah-backed security services in June 2007 has been in sole charge of the Gaza Strip – Mr Fayyad found himself under increasing pressure to continue in the post.

Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006 but whose government was sacked by Mr Abbas in July 2007 after the movement’s takeover of Gaza, never recognised the legitimacy of Mr Fayyad’s first government and yesterday rejected the new government as well.

“This government is illegal and we will not recognise it,” a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said in a statement, adding that its creation was evidence of “political, legal and constitutional chaos”.

“This is a deliberate attempt to ruin the internal dialogue and threatens the future of unity.” He also said it was a step aimed at pleasing the United States and Israel.

Analysts say it is not clear whether the new government would undermine unity talks, since the talks in any case seemed to be going nowhere.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst, said the extended cabinet was necessary because the previous government had seen ministers toil with two or three portfolios each.

However, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said the formation of the government would “deepen the division”.

“Gaza is appointing its own ministers and the West Bank is appointing its own ministers. This new government is deepening the Palestinian division by cementing the status quo.”

The new cabinet, unlike the old administration, also includes representatives of other Palestinian factions. Analysts say the move will reduce long-standing tensions between Fatah and Mr Fayyad.

“The appointment of Fatah members was secondary to their credentials” as technocrats, said Mr Khatib, himself a former minister. “By including political factions, the government also seeks to gain the support of those factions.”

However, some Fatah officials also rejected the new government, evidence of deep rifts within Mr Abbas’s party. Azzam al Ahmed, a senior official in the party, said the government had been formed without consultation and would not receive Fatah support. A similar sentiment was heard from a Fatah parliamentarian, Ashraf Juma’a, who denounced the new government as being “illegally formed”.

Fatah, the backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the internationally accepted representative of the Palestinian people, has been in disarray since the death of Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader.

Analysts and members blamed those internal divisions for Fatah’s defeat to Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections, when one bloc, led by Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader widely touted as a possible successor to Mr Abbas, almost broke away at the last moment.

The divisions have not healed since, and the long overdue Fatah general assembly has yet to be convened. A meeting of the Central Committee, Fatah’s ruling body, is due in June, but may well also be postponed.

Palestinian politicians have lost sight of the greater picture, Mr Abdul Hadi said.

“Everybody is acting on a personal level and with a personal agendas. There is no loyalty to factions or to a system.

“There is no vision, and people are angry and frustrated. The reality on the ground is that there is an [Israeli] apartheid system governing two large municipalities [Gaza and the West Bank] that Palestinian leaders like to call governments.”


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