Leader quits to help unite Palestinians

The Baltimore Sun

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist who gained international respect and hefty aid donations for the Palestinian cause, said yesterday that he will step down in a move aimed at reviving a power-sharing deal with the militant group Hamas.

The shake-up is part of evolving leadership changes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could complicate President Barack Obama's search for peace in the region.

In Israel, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is working to form a coalition government of right-wing parties that gained a majority in the parliament elected last month. He has said he will reorient Israel's talks with the Palestinians toward economic issues, away from the U.S.-supported goal of an independent Palestinian state.

With little hope for a statehood accord, the Palestinian Authority, led by the secular Fatah faction, is trying to end its bitter split with Hamas, an Islamic group that refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

Reconciliation on terms favorable to Hamas would risk alienating Israel even further.

In a recent interview, Fayyad voiced some of the frustration that led up to his decision to resign.

He lamented the futility of a year of peace talks with Israel and the internal feud that has divided Palestinians between Fatah rule in the West Bank and Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip for nearly three years.

Reconciling with Hamas, he added, is well worth the risks. "From the point of view of our national aspirations, there is nothing more catastrophic than separation," he said.

In his resignation letter, Fayyad said that by stepping aside, he hoped to ease negotiations between Hamas and Fatah on the makeup of an interim power-sharing arrangement. Those talks, held in Cairo, Egypt, began last month and resume Tuesday.

The proposed new government would govern Gaza and the West Bank for less than a year. It would administer international aid pledged to Gaza after Israel's devastating military assault against Hamas this winter and arrange for new elections of a president and parliament early next year.

Fayyad, 57, said he would leave office when an interim government is formed but no later than the end of this month. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who will keep his position, said yesterday that he expects a deal with Hamas by then.

Fayyad's resignation "comes to enhance and support the national dialogue to reach a national unity government," Abbas said.

An aide to Abbas said Fayyad could be reappointed at the end of March if a new government has not emerged.

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