TEL AVIV — A Palestinian leadership struggle appears to be over, with Hamas and Fatah leaders agreeing to replace the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, with an academic from outside the Islamic militant party. The change is seen as a critical step toward lifting a seven-month international aid boycott on the Hamas-run Palestinian government.
The probable new prime minister, Mohammad Shabir, is a former head of the Hamas-sponsored Islamic University in Gaza, but is not considered an active member of the party. The selection of an independent Islamist, say analysts, helps Hamas save face, while allowing the new Palestinian government more flexibility to meet the requirements of US and European donor nations and restore the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance.
Echoing the US and European positions, Israeli foreign minister Tzippi Livni signaled Monday that her government would work with a new Palestinian cabinet if it agrees to forswear violence, recognize Israel, and follow previous peace agreements. "The issue is not who sits in the government, rather what the government says,'' she said in an interview with Israel Radio. "The test is not a personal test ... but what they will say. And the demand is very clear."
A new Palestinian national unity government is expected to ratify policy guidelines on peace talks laid out by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah party who supports peace negotiations, according to a former Palestinian minister.
Those guidelines are based on a document put forward by Palestinian prisoners calling for an end to military attacks inside of Israel, and an implicit recognition of the Israel and endorsement of previous peace agreements.
The current Hamas-led government initially rejected Mr. Abbas's insistence on talks, and his criticism of the Palestinian uprising. Meanwhile, Mr. Haniyeh and hard-line Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar have been steadfast in resisting international pressure to negotiate with Israel and recognize the Jewish state.
But independent Islamists like Mr. Shabir are seen as less bound by Hamas ideology, and are more likely to accept interim peace deals and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It seems that from the perspective of Abbas, the Quartet [Russia, the European Union, the US, and the United Nations], and Israel, what counts is the platform of the new government,'' says Ghassan Khatib, a former labor minister under the Fatah-led government. "It's difficult for big Hamas names to go along with a platform that is not a Hamas platform.''
Meanwhile, at an Arab League meeting in Cairo Sunday, Hamas Foreign Minister Zahar said that he would be willing to attend an international conference attended by Israel, the Associated Press reported. The Arab ministers also pledged to break financial sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, reported Reuters, but gave few details as to how that would be accomplished. Kuwait announced a pledge of $30 million to the Palestinian Authority via the Arab League.
Shabir, who has a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University, headed the Islamic University in Gaza for 15 years. He grew up within the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement which spawned Hamas in the late 1980s. Still, he is considered a nonpartisan figure in good standing with the rival Palestinian parties.
Hamas's representatives in the new cabinet are likely to meet a similar criteria: public figures who have ties to the Islamist militants but are considered politically independent. Ziyad Abu Amr, an academic and independent legislator endorsed by Hamas, is considered the top choice to replace Mr. Zahar as foreign minister.
The appointments are considered a major concession by Hamas.
"In order to end the international sanction on the money transfer, [Hamas] is saying we are willing to give up the government if this will help our people,'' says Nashat Aqtash, who was employed during the recent Palestinian parliamentary election as a campaign consultant to Hamas. "Still, any Palestinian government has to go to the parliament [for approval] where Hamas has the majority.''
The international community's financial and diplomatic sanctions on the current Hamas-led cabinet have left Palestinian Authority coffers empty, sparking a financial crisis because some 140,000 government employees have gone unpaid.
As the new unity government – Fatah and Hamas sharing power – takes shape with the most influential posts going to outsiders rather than to Hamas's top political figures, it is unclear how much power the new leadership will wield in resuscitating a government which has almost ceased to function. "It's a good question," says Mr. Khatib. "This is a new experience. It's very difficult to imagine.''
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in Washington this week, where he is likely to be pressured to meet with Abbas. In a rare interview with a Palestinian newspaper, published Monday, Mr. Olmert said he would release "a large number" of Palestinian prisoners, but not before Hamas militants release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured in a cross- border raid in June. "I give Palestinians my word of honor," Olmert said. "You will see how far I will go to allow your sons to return to their houses."