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Leadership row delays unity government

June 20, 2011 9:54 P.M. (Updated: June 21, 2011 7:34 P.M.)
RAMALLAH (AFP) -- Disagreement over who should be the next Palestinian premier is holding up the creation of a unity government agreed last month between old rivals Fatah and Hamas, Palestinian officials said on Monday.

A meeting in Cairo on Tuesday between President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, and Hamas chief Khalid Mash'al has been postponed due to Hamas opposition to the reappointment of Western-backed economist Salam Fayyad, they said.

"The real reason for the delay in the forming and convening of the government is disagreement over Fayyad," an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"President Abbas insists on nominating Salam Fayyad, whose appointment Hamas categorically rejects," he added. "That has led the two sides to postpone the meeting rather than announce the collapse of the reconciliation."

"Fayyad is not wanted because his name is linked to Palestinian division, the debt-ridden Palestinian economy and operations by the [Palestinian Authority] security services against the resistance," Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Radwan said, referring to the group's armed campaign against Israel.

Announcing the delay on Sunday, Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad made no mention of a leadership dispute.

"The meeting has been postponed until a new date is set in the coming days in order to assure the best atmosphere for the successful implementation of the reconciliation agreement," he told AFP.

Ahmed said Fatah had requested the delay in the talks "to create the right atmosphere and because of the commitments that have come up on the president's schedule in Turkey."

He said Abbas would visit Turkey on Wednesday.

Samir Awad, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, said that while Fayyad has the personal backing of Abbas, he does not have universal support within Fatah.

"There are those who favor dropping his candidacy and putting other names forward," he said. "Hamas has burnt all its bridges and continues to reject Fayyad."

A change of heart by Hamas seems unlikely given that the party has already agreed other concessions that set off a row between Mahmoud Az-Zahar, its main Gaza ideologue and Syria-based political leader Mash'al.

Az-Zahar, who participated in discussions with Fatah in April, has criticized Mash'al for comments he made during the official ceremony of reconciliation on May 4, saying he had "no mandate to make such statements."

A member of Fatah's central committee told journalists last week that he too was surprised by some of Mash'al's words.

"He said 'We accept two states on the 1967 borders. We are not in favor of violence,'" Mohammed Shtayeh said, adding that Mash'al had also told Abbas that if he needed more time to negotiate with Israel, he would not object.

"What I heard from Khalid Mash'al... I never expected him to say," Shtayeh said.

A poll published on Monday by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed broad public support for Fayyad with 45 percent of 1,200 respondents favoring him, as opposed to 25 percent approval for Jamal Khodari, who is widely believed to have Hamas' backing.

But sources close to Fayyad told Ma'an on Monday that he would announce his intention to refuse any offer to lead the transitional government.

Fayyad did not want to be an obstacle to reconciliation, the officials said.

Under the terms of the unity deal signed by Fatah and Hamas they must agree on independent figures to make up a government that will lay the groundwork for legislative and presidential elections within a year.

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