New voices temper Palestinian rule

Khouloud Daibes defies the image of a Palestinian government run by a pack of gun-toting Islamic militants.

The new Palestinian tourism minister takes the reins this week from the outgoing minister from Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, which formed a government a year ago that much of the international community has shunned.

She is proud to call herself a technocrat – she earned a PhD in architecture in Germany and was in charge of tourism to Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace at the turn of the millennium celebrations in 2000. Besides being a multilingual woman, she's also a Christian and a political independent.

This makes Mrs. Daibes part of a new cadre of respected and successful pro-peace Palestinians who have joined up with compatriots in Hamas in the hope of reestablishing relations abroad and staving off a civil war at home.

But this wider-than-ever variety of political orientations represented in the new Palestinian cabinet is already presenting a dilemma for Israel as US and European diplomats this week met with the new Palestinian finance minister, apparently ending a year of ostracism. Norway recognized the new government this week, and Hamas officials predict that others will come around.

The Quartet, which includes the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, said that the new government – still headed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – has yet to meet its three core conditions: that the new government renounce terror (Palestinians view this as the right of resistance), recognize Israel, and recognize previous agreements signed.

On Wednesday, the Bush administration said it would cut by nearly one-half the amount of money it will send to support Palestinian security because some of the money sent last year could not be accounted for.

But to whom in the Palestinian leadership to speak is becoming a complex matter, one which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will have to navigate when she arrives in the region Saturday.

New ministers, such as Daibes, will make it difficult to broad-brush the new Palestinian government as one of Islamic extremists.

"Having a government with independents and technocrats will be a message to the world that this conflict should and can be solved," says Daibes in an interview at her home in East Jerusalem. Besides her work, she's a mother of three children. Her husband is a senior official with a German aid group here. She is as comfortable speaking English and German as she is speaking Arabic.

To her, the cool international reception to the new Palestinian government, with many Western countries announcing that they would meet only non-Hamas ministers, is a "frustration." Then she adds that "frustration isn't a strong enough word." Rather, she says that after Palestinians elected Hamas in January 2006, the world induced a kind of "collective punishment" on the Palestinians for having made a "democratic choice."

Among this new generation of moderates are Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official who leads the moderate Third Way Party, now the political home of Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi; the new foreign minister, Dr. Ziad Abu Amr, an author and political scientist who has long studied Hamas but was never a member of it; and the minister of information, Moustapha Barghouthi, also a progressive who has been an advocate of a two-state solution with Israel and a critic of corruption in Fatah, the main political faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The presence of such figures in the government, each of them with international experience and a reputation for conciliatory political views, raises high expectations among Palestinians.

Most Palestinians say their No. 1 priority is "ending the chaos and restoring security," says Jamil Rabah, the co-director of Near East Consulting in Ramallah, a polling organization.

More than half of Palestinians surveyed by the group in March say that the new unity government will last more than a year – which is longer than most Israelis say about their own government. "It's surprising, because it shows that people are optimistic," Mr. Rabah says. "Palestinians also believe overall that the Hamas government in general has become more pragmatic than it was."

In another poll this week, a slight majority of Israelis say they think their leaders should talk to the new Palestinian government, even with Hamas officials in it. The Israeli cabinet, however, decided this week that it will not deal with the new government and expects its international allies to follow suit.

The Hamas charter, note Israeli officials, still calls for Israel's destruction. "We are keeping all lines of communication with [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah] open," Miri Eisin, an Israeli government spokeswoman told foreign reporters this week. But added:"Please, someone tell me in what way has Hamas backed down? We won't talk to a government that doesn't recognize our right to exist."

Though there have been several outbreaks of violence in the Gaza Strip in recent days, many Palestinians are heralding their first-ever unity government as a sign of hope and a step towards political maturity. Palestinian newspaper editorials reflected disappointment in the US policy.

"The new policy of classification and selectivity which has been recently innovated by the Americans, by not dealing with the Hamas members in the government, reflects political ignorance," Jaafar Muhammad Ahmad wrote in Wednesday's Al-Quds newspaper. "This policy of 'divide and conquer' is an old and well-known technique. The Americans do not want to acknowledge the fact that this is a government of all Palestinians....the American policy only aims at undermining the new Palestinian government. The Arab summit must be prepared to exert pressure on the US in order to lift the unjustified sanctions on the Palestinians."

Many Hamas leaders, for their part, have expressed patience.

"I think it is acceptable by different Hamas members to have the US and some other Western countries deal only with some ministers of the national unity government," says Dr. Sameer Abu Aisheh, who is the Palestinian minister of planning and a member of Hamas. "I personally think that this is a start of a positive situation in which the international community will open up to the rest of the ministers.

"We should neither feel that these so called 'accepted ministers' have betrayed their colleagues, nor stand in their way," he adds. "The ideal situation is for the international community not to discriminate," he says, but "acceptance of the national unity government will be gradual."

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