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Hamas prepares to present cabinet

By
JOSHUA BRILLIANT

JERUSALEM, March 9 (UPI) -- The radical Islamic Hamas movement is likely to present its Cabinet next week and it seems the nationalist Fatah, which led the Palestinian Authority in the last decade, is not going to join it, a senior Hamas source told United Press International.

Six weeks after Hamas won an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Council elections it seems the Palestinians are preparing for a democratic change of government. It is a rare occasion in the Arab world and the first time a radical Islamic movement has assumed power through the ballot box.

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Hamas won one seat short of a two-thirds majority in the 132-member Legislative Council and has been trying to form a broad-based government.

Its sweeping victory was greater than it had expected, and analysts believe it realized that running a government, on its own, would force it to cope with dilemmas it was not yet ready to meet. One would be the need to deal with Israel, a state Hamas refuses to recognize. It would thus prefer someone else do it, providing it can pull the plug on the move.

Moreover, the United States, the European Union and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization. It has launched many suicide-bombing attacks, and does not want to disband its militant arm. Therefore, it is likely to have difficulties abroad. Its chances of winning foreign aid, which is vital to prevent the Palestinian Authority's collapse, would be dampened. Therefore, if it can present a better image abroad, it might want to do so.

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And perhaps most important is the fact that the Palestinian political system divides power between the president and the government. The president is Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah. If the government is Hamas, the friction between the two parties might lead to a civil war.

Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, been trying to co-opt other factions into the government he is trying to form and there have been talks with Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Independent Palestine Party of Mustafa Barghouthi and the Third Way of former Finance Minister Salaam Fayaad.

Haniyeh told the Ramatan news agency his cabinet's political program is "almost ready, and we hope to find a common ground with the other factions, mainly our brothers in Fatah."

A tentative list of Cabinet candidates, published by the Maan news agency Thursday, included a PFLP representative, but the editor of Hamas' Ar-Resasla weekly, Gazai Hamad, doubted Fatah and The Third Way would join the Cabinet.

Hamad said he expected the new Cabinet to be ready by Monday or Tuesday because Fatah will not join it.

The hitch with Fatah is partly ideological. Fatah leaders said they would join the coalition if Hamas accepted the Palestine Liberation Organization's political program and Abbas' demands made last month, when he asked Haniyye to form a government.

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Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, wants the new government to recognize the Oslo accords and other agreements the Palestinians have concluded with Israel.

A Fatah-Hamas meeting has been scheduled for Thursday and, "If there is (common) ground on the political program we won't say 'No,'" an aide to Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah's parliamentary faction, told UPI.

Political analysts believe Fatah is divided on whether to join a Hamas-dominated government. Some Fatah leaders want to hold on to positions of power and help Abu Mazen govern. However others have talked of letting Hamas run on its own, show what it can do, demonstrate it cannot do much, fail, and then head for early elections. This time, they believe, Fatah will do better.

Hamas is trying to bridge the gap with Fatah. Hamad talked of letting Abu Mazen negotiate with Israel in his capacity as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO is the body that concluded the Oslo accords and other agreements with the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority comes under it.

"Hamas will not block Abu Mazen and create problems," Hamad said. "The world will be convinced there are negotiations and that the PLO recognizes Israel," he added.

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Meanwhile, Fatah and Hamas quarreled at the Legislative Council.

In the last session of the former, Fatah-controlled Legislative Council, the delegates passed new legislation giving Abu Mazen additional powers, including the power to appoint judges for a constitutional court. That meeting, almost three weeks after the elections, would have given Abbas the ability to block decisions of the new Hamas-dominated legislature.

The new Legislative Council immediately moved to nullify last month's meeting and thereby cancel its decisions. Fatah's legislators balked at the move, walked out and Hamas passed its resolution by 76:0 with seven abstentions.

Fatah went to court and is awaiting the decision, and both sides have tried to reduce the tension.

That was part of the democratic game and does not affect the coalition talks, Haniyye told Ramatan. If the court rejects the appeal "we will apologize," al-Ahmad's aide said.

Despite the democratic process, the danger of deterioration still exists. The Palestinians might have a two-headed administration with the president, in effect, heading the opposition to the prime minister.

Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki noted that Abu Mazen retains "a great deal of power." He can dismiss the Cabinet and paralyze the Palestinian Authority whenever he wishes, Shikaki told the Dayan Center in Tel Aviv.

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The security services might formally come under a Hamas minister of interior, but 82 percent of its 70,000 members voted Fatah. "They are loyal to Fatah, not Hamas," Shikaki said.

Some 70,000 bureaucrats, including the PA's senior bureaucracy, include Fatah loyalists and any Hamas attempt to dismiss them would "most likely be confronted by violence from Fatah," he added.

Nor can Hamas dissolve Fatah's militia, he noted.

If the elections system had been different, Hamas would not have won an absolute majority and Fatah could have formed the coalition, Shikaki maintained.

Almost half those who voted Hamas did not describe themselves as religious. They lost hope in the peace process, felt that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year was a victory for the armed struggle, and credited Hamas with that. They were fed up with corruption, much of which was Fatah's fault, and believed Hamas could provide security. They wanted to punish Fatah.

Fatah's loss of control over its members created a situation in which there were 3.5 Fatah candidates or Fatah people running as "independents" for every Hamas candidate in the regions. Fatah's votes were split and Hamas reaped the results, Shikaki said.

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