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Rival Palestinian leaders agree to form coalition government

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Rival Palestinian leaders signed a deal late Thursday to form a coalition government that they hope will end nearly a year of political stalemate, deadly street battles and international isolation.

The agreement, reached in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, could end months of clashes between the Fatah and Hamas factions, which have been pushing the Palestinians toward a civil war. But it fell short of meeting international demands that the new government renounce violence and explicitly recognize Israel, making it unlikely that the pact would lead to a breakthrough that would lift the fiscal boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

Instead, Palestinian leaders appeared to be looking to divide the international community and persuade some key nations to break ranks by supporting the new government.

"We will embark on a new era of resistance and achieving our national goal of lifting the embargo on the Palestinian people," Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said during the signing ceremony in Mecca.

Israel, the United States and much of the international community have refused to recognize the current Palestinian government, which is dominated by Hamas leaders who refuse to renounce the group's goal of destroying Israel.

After the power-sharing arrangement was announced late Thursday, Israel reiterated that it wouldn't resume normal ties with the Palestinian Authority unless it agreed to the demands set out by the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

"Israel expects the new Palestinian government to respect all three of the international community's principles: recognition of Israel, acceptance of all the former agreements, and renunciation of terror and violence," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The Mecca pact comes close to endorsing only one principle—acceptance of previous agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, including the U.S.-backed "road map," which sets out a process for creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But the Palestinian leaders agreed only to "respect" past agreements, vague wording that may not satisfy the international demands.

Recognition of Israel had been the major sticking point that prevented the establishment of a coalition government. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had refused for months to agree to any deal that fell short of meeting all three international demands.

But the pragmatic Fatah leader abandoned that stand and said that the compromise "will begin a new era of collaboration" by creating "a government that will be able to put an end to the suffering of our people."

As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to donate $1 billion to the Palestinian Authority, a major injection of money into the cash-starved government, Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh's political adviser, said.

Saudi Arabia stepped in as mediator in part over concerns that the Hamas-led government was aligning itself with Iran, which is re-emerging as a serious regional political power broker.

Under the new arrangement, Haniyeh will remain as prime minister, and he'll have five weeks to establish a coalition government in which Hamas will hold a plurality of the Cabinet posts. Hamas will retain nine ministries, Fatah will hold six, and five will go to independent candidates.

The deal comes as Abbas prepares to participate in renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to return to the Middle East for a Feb. 19 summit with Olmert and Abbas.

Fatah and Hamas were pushed toward compromise by a worsening cycle of factional street clashes, which have claimed more than 100 lives in the past two months.

Saudi King Abdullah stepped in late last month during the most recent Gaza Strip battles and called on the Palestinian leaders to come to Mecca and settle their differences.

Yousef conceded that the Mecca agreement wouldn't satisfy Israel. But he voiced optimism that it would persuade European nations, which have historically provided more money for the Palestinian government than the United States has, to restore ties.

Yousef said he expected Saudi Arabia to put pressure on the United States also.

"I think Saudi Arabia will do its best to convince the Americans that this is the time to lift the embargo and end the international isolation," Yousef said.

Iran has pledged $250 million to help the Hamas-led government, raising concerns in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

"The Saudis know if they don't help the Palestinians, Hamas and the Palestinians might go to Iran," Yousef said.

After the deal was announced in Mecca, Palestinians carrying Fatah and Hamas flags tied together poured into Gaza City streets as soldiers and militants fired celebratory gunfire into the sky.

Revelers marched past barricades and checkpoints made of concrete and sand bags that had been erected last week during the latest round of street battles.

Palestinians expressed cautious optimism that the deal could end the international isolation, but said that the real indication would be the world's reaction.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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