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Palestinian prime minister resigns in hopes of boosting unity talks

JERUSALEM_Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad submitted his resignation Saturday in a move intended to bolster unity talks opening Tuesday between Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza strip.

Fayyad, a technocrat, gained the respect of foreign governments for his close supervision of the spending of aid funds, but Hamas, which controls the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, views his government as illegal.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in a violent coup in 2007, after which to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas Abbas dissolved the government and appointed Fayyad Prime Minister.

The international community has largely ostracized Hamas until it agrees to recognize Israel and halts rocket attacks against Israel, and Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip, allowing in only limited humanitarian relief.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh expressed the hope that creation of a unity government would end the blockade of Gaza and lead to international recognition of a joint Palestinian government. "The aim of the president is for a government that that would end the siege, a government that would be accepted by the world and not boycotted," he told McClatchy.

Efforts to unite the two movements under one government took on a new urgency after Israel's invasion of Gaza Strip in January, which it said was in response to Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel.

International donors last week pledged billions of dollars in aid to rebuild the areas devastated in Israel's assault -- including $900 million by the Obama administration -- but few are willing to provide aid directly to Hamas. It isn't clear just how much aid they'd provide to a unity government - especially if Fayyad is not there to oversee the distribution.

Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy advisor to Israeli Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, said a unity government would be a negative development, "If you look at world history, in every case where you have a government of moderates and radicals it is just a matter of time, often a very short time, until the radicals start calling the shots," he told McClatchy.

The outgoing Israeli government is also skeptical of the unity talks, which open in Cairo. Andy David, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said a Palestinian government in which some parts accept international conditions and others don't would not signify progress, "If they take the two (Fatah and Hamas), and mix them and come up with a government that with one hand says yes and the other no, that the situation hasn't changed much."

David said Israel would not ease restrictions on its border until Hamas releases Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a soldier it captured, and halts its rocket attacks.

The Bush administration discouraged efforts to form a unity government, but Palestinians hope the Obama administration might have a different attitude.

"The president (Abbas) spoke with the Americans, with Secretary of State Clinton, with George Mitchell. and while he didn't discuss this issue I am sure the American's support the president's policies," Rudeinah said.

In another break with the previous administration a Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs visited Damascus Saturday. The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 following the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri for which it blamed Syria.

And Turkish officials announced during the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that they will resume hosting indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations if both sides are willing. Turkey suspended the talks when Israel invaded Gaza. The Bush administration viewed the talks with suspicion but President Barack Obama appears to be in favor of any moves that will advance peace in the Mideast.

(Churgin is a special correspondent)


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