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Hamas preparing to relinquish control

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Ten months after seizing power in a historic election, the hard-line Hamas movement is preparing to relinquish control of the Palestinian Authority in hopes of ending the international economic blockade that has prevented Hamas from effectively running the government.

In a significant concession, the Islamist militant group agreed Monday to accept a United States-educated microbiology professor to replace Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister. As the new prime minister, Mohammed Shabir would head a coalition of largely apolitical intellectuals designed to end the Palestinian government's global isolation.

Although a new unity government could end Hamas' short-lived reign as the ruling Palestinian party in the Cabinet, it remains far from certain that it will succeed in persuading critical foreign donors to restore millions in funding.

As soon as Hamas formed the government in March, Israel and the international community cut off virtually all outside funding to the Palestinians. Since then, the Palestinian government has ground to a halt. Hospitals are barely running. Schools have been closed for weeks. Government workers haven't been paid regular salaries in months.

Hamas is still refusing to meet one of the core international demands, though: explicit recognition of Israel.

"It is impossible for us to come out and say we recognize Israel," said Hamas negotiator Eesa Nashar.

If the new unity government fails to take that step, it seems unlikely that Israel, the European Union and the United States will agree to resume help for the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian leaders have been mired in negotiations over the unity government for months. Negotiators have announced breakthroughs at various points, only to have each deal break down.

One sticking point until now has been Hamas' demand that it retain the post of prime minister. But Haniyeh and his political party now have agreed to cede control to a government led by largely apolitical specialists.

On Monday, the parties settled on Shabir, the longtime head of Islamic University in Gaza City, as the new prime minister.

Shabir, 60, served as president of the Hamas-allied university for 15 years.

Although the campus has produced and hired many top Hamas leaders, Shabir hasn't been a prominent political figure. Shabir, who received a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University, has maintained good relations with leaders from Hamas and its more moderate rivals in the Fatah party.

If the deal falls into place, Haniyeh would resign as prime minister, clearing the way for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to name Shabir as his replacement. Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party still have to agree on who will fill the other Cabinet posts, including that of foreign minister.

Hamas' decision is a significant concession. It long had argued that the international community should support its government because it fairly won the Palestinian elections in January.

Israeli leaders suggested that the political change was a clear sign that the international isolation had been a success.

"This policy is apparently working, and the proof of this is that Hamas members understand they cannot continue with their ideology and remain in power and receive money or legitimization from the international community," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a weekend interview on Israel Radio.

Hamas leaders rejected that contention and noted that they'd sought to form a unity government from the start. Fatah refused to join the government until Hamas agreed to moderate its hard-line position on Israel.

Before restoring funding to the Palestinians, Israel and its global allies, known as the Quartet (Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union), have demanded that the Palestinian government recognize Israel, accept past agreements and renounce violence.

If the new government takes those steps, Israeli and American officials said Monday that they would agree to work with the Palestinian coalition—even if it includes members of Hamas.

"If the government guidelines recognize the three conditions of the Quartet, then we would deal with that government," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But Hamas is still refusing to explicitly accept Israel as a neighbor. Instead, it's agreeing to accept a platform that implicitly recognizes Israel.

Still, leaders with Hamas and Fatah voiced optimism Monday that the final critical details could be worked out and that the unity government could be installed by early December.

"We have arrived at the point of no return with regard to the formation of a national government," said Fatah spokesman Walid Awad. "We think there will be a positive outcome."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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