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New PM says to strive for national reconciliation

June 3, 2013 9:27 P.M. (Updated: June 5, 2013 9:23 P.M.)
RAMALLAH (AFP) -- The newly appointed Palestinian Authority prime minister, respected academic Rami Hamdallah, said Monday he will strive to continue the work of his predecessor and that he is ready to stand aside for a Fatah-Hamas unity government.

A day after being hand-picked by President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamdallah's appointment was hailed by the United States and welcomed by Israelis who described him as a moderate pragmatist.

Speaking to the official Voice of Palestine radio, the British-educated independent said he expected to be in office until mid-August, when a unity government is due to be created.

"The new government will be a continuation of the last government, most of the ministers will continue to serve in their positions," he said, adding his cabinet was "part of the reconciliation efforts".

"I hope that by August 14, President Abbas will form a new government according to the agreement between Hamas and Fatah."

News of the nomination was made public late Sunday on the last day of a deadline to find a successor to Salam Fayyad, who resigned in mid-April following months of tension with Abbas.

"President Abbas has asked me to form a new government, and I have accepted," Hamdallah told AFP.

Under Palestinian law, he now has an initial three weeks to form a government, which can then be extended for another two if necessary.

Hamdallah, considered close to Abbas's ruling Fatah faction, is the head of Al-Najah University and secretary general of the Central Election Commission.

The 54-year-old was born in Anabta village near the northern town of Tulkarem and has a doctorate in applied linguistics from Lancaster University in England.

His appointment is seen as an interim measure until Abbas can piece together a long-promised unity government as laid out in a 2011 agreement between Fatah and its political rival, Hamas.

At a meeting in Cairo on May 14, Fatah, which dominates the Ramallah-based government, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, agreed on a three-month deadline for establishing a unity government and setting an elections date.

Under the deal, the two sides were to have set up an interim cabinet of technocrats to prepare for elections, before establishing a unity government.

But the deal stalled over persistent in-fighting over the make-up of the caretaker cabinet.

"Hamdallah is a national patriot and an independent and we hope that he can lead the government for three months to give us an opportunity to form a united government with Hamas," said Amin Maqbul, head of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, deeply involved in efforts to revive the long-dormant peace process, said it came "at a moment of challenge, which is also an important moment of opportunity".

The European Union's representative to the Palestinian territories, John Gatt-Rutter, said he expected relations with the Palestinian Authority to be unchanged.

"We hope to continue to work very closely with the new government of president Abbas to build the institutions that Palestine needs."

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hamdallah was an unknown political quantity.

"We do not know the new prime minister as a statesman but as a professor and we shall see how things develop," he said. "It is to be hoped that we shall find ourselves faced with pragmatic people."

Israeli pundits hailed his appointment.

"Israeli officials see Rami Hamdallah as a moderate and a pragmatist who will follow the same political line as his predecessor," army radio said, calling him someone who "knows how to speak to the West".

"Hamdallah is close to Mahmoud Abbas, he won't overshadow him. He is more of a manager and not really a political leader, whereas Salam Fayyad appeared more and more like a rival to Abbas," it said.

Unnamed Israeli sources quoted by Haaretz newspaper said it was unlikely he would be able to shape the political map.

"Hamdallah is considered moderate and pragmatic as far as Israel and the peace process goes but it is doubtful that he will have any influence in the foreseeable future," it said, noting also that he had "developed professional contacts with many Israelis" over the years.

But Barak Ravid, the paper's diplomatic correspondent, said he had taken on a Sisyphean task, assuming overnight "the most ungrateful job in the West Bank.

"His chances of success are so low that some would say agreeing to take the post is akin to taking a suicide mission."

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