Academic emerging as possible 'unity' leader for Palestine

By Donald Macintyre

JERUSALEM - A US-educated microbiologist who used to be president of Gaza's Islamic University is emerging as a possible candidate to head the "national unity" Government that Palestinian leaders are predicting will replace the current Hamas-dominated Cabinet.

Mohammed Shabir, 60, is being promoted as a compromise "technocrat" who could replace the Hamas leader Ishmail Haniyeh as Palestinian Prime Minister. Mr Haniyeh announced on Friday that he was prepared to stand down if he was an obstacle to the lifting of the economic blockade of the Palestinian Authority.

But Mr Shabir's appointment will probably only happen after further talks between Hamas and the Fatah Opposition on the wider composition of a government, as well as the programme it would adopt. Mr Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, suggested last week that the process could take between two to three weeks.

Israel, which has been withholding £60 million ($173 million) a month in duties owed to the Palestinians since March, and the international community have insisted that they will only deal with the PA if it recognises Israel, renounces violence and abides by all agreements made by the Fatah-led predecessor authority.

Mr Abbas had indicated on Saturday that the two sides had made "great progress" on the formation of the unity Government which Mr Abbas wants to agree a programme consistent with the "prisoners' document" providing for implicit rather than explicit recognition of Israel.

Other candidates for senior ministerial office being seen as potentially acceptable to the international community include Ziad Abu Amr, another Gaza academic and secular politician who is not a Hamas member but who was given backing by the faction in last January's elections.

A possible finance minister could be Salam Fayad, who is favoured by Mr Abbas, has good contacts in the Washington political and banking community, and made serious, if lonely, efforts to regulate inefficiency and corruption in the Fatah-led PA when he held the post before.

But the prospect of even forming such a government are closely linked to the question of whether the international community, in particular the US, would re-engage diplomatically and economically with a coalition at the head of the PA. While Israel and Fatah have blamed Hamas' hardline exiled leadership for aborting the attempt to form a unity government in September, some Palestinian sources also say that an obstacle was the US insistence that nothing short of literal acceptance of the three international conditions would be acceptable.

While the US is watching developments, it is unclear whether it would be ready to soften its stance. Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, said: "The issue is not who is sitting in the Government but what the Government says."

Suggesting the new government would be "Hamas-lite", a senior Israeli military official said Hamas was building up its military infrastructure and would remain the leading player in Palestinian politics. "It will have control of the parliament, control on the ground and [control of the capacity] to make terrorist attacks.

The Arab League said its members had abandoned the US-led boycott of the PA in response to the US veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel's killing of 19 civilians in Beit Hanoun last Wednesday.

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