REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Palestinian factions said Monday they had broken a political impasse by agreeing to make Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas head of a proposed unity government between the secular Fatah Party and the Islamist militant movement Hamas.
Abbas would serve as president and prime minister, replacing current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was favored by Abbas and the international community to continue in that role but was rejected by Hamas leaders as being too pro-Western.
As president, Abbas was already in a position to play a leading role in the unity government, which was announced in May 2011. The government was never formed due to political in-fighting between Hamas and Fatah.
The appointment of Abbas, the leader of Fatah, to the additional role of prime minister is a shift from the original agreement, which called for a nonpartisan government of technocrats from neither party.
Some questioned whether the new government would differ substantially from the existing one. In addition, key details remain unclear, including whether Fayyad would continue as finance minister -- a crucial post in the eyes of the international community -- and who would control the security forces.
Announced with much fanfare last year, the reconciliation agreement was supposed to end more than four years of feuding, which began in 2007 after Hamas militants took control over the Gaza Strip and kicked out Fatah. After that, both sides created rival governments, each with its own prime minister and cabinet.
The unity government was intended to put Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under the same government while preparations were made for elections in May. But doubts are already being raised about whether that vote will be held on schedule.
Abbas rejected criticism that the deal -– brokered over the weekend in Qatar -– was largely an effort to convince the Palestinian public that its leaders were making progress toward reconciliation.
“We didn’t sign this declaration for the sake of signing or for the media,” Abbas said during a news conference televised from the Qatari capital, Doha. “We consider the Palestinian reconciliation a vital Palestinian interest and a vital Arab interest.”
Fayyad expressed his support for the deal in a statement issued by the government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the agreement, saying Abbas should not form a government with Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel for refusing to renounce violence.
“If [Abbas] acts on what was signed in Doha, he will be choosing to abandon the way of peace and joining with Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “I say you cannot hold both ends of the stick. It’s either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel.”
Some Palestinian leaders also questioned the legality of the agreement, which they said may violate a Palestinian law intended to prevent the same person from serving as president and prime minister.
“For Abbas to become a prime minister, the basic law needs to be amended,” said Hassan Khreisheh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
It was also unclear whether Hamas leaders in Gaza would embrace the deal. A power struggle has emerged between Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, who signed the deal in Qatar, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, whose future role in the unity government is unclear.
Hamas has been forced to abandon its exile base in Syria due to the instability there in recent months and is searching for another country to host its leaders.
-- Edmund Sanders. Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank contributed.
Photo: Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, center, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal attend a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on Monday. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images