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The United States will only recognize a future Palestinian unity government if Salem Fayyad is reappointed prime minister, according to a message relayed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to European and Arab leaders at last week's donor summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The same message was relayed to Hamas by the Norwegian government, in response to the organization's demand that Fatah replaces Fayyad with an independent candidate.

Senior Palestinian sources yesterday told Haaretz that the sudden resignation of Fayyad was a tactical move, designed to pressure Hamas into softening its opposition to Fayyad serving as prime minister in a unity government. The sources believe that the American threat, which is likely to be backed by the European Union and Egypt, will lead to Hamas changing its position and Fayyad rescinding his resignation. It is also feasible that the continuation of Fayyad's term as Palestinian prime minister will be on the agenda during talks between the U.S. and Syria, where the head of Hamas' political wing resides.

Western diplomats confirmed over the weekend that Washington has relayed messages to Hamas, via a European country that is in contact with the organization. The message intimated that a future unity government in the Palestinian Authority must be composed of technocrats who are members of neither Hamas nor Fatah, apart from Fayyad.

Even though Fayyad is not officially a member of Fatah, the U.S. administration sees him as the leading candidate to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas following the election that is due to be held within the next 12 months. While Marwan Barghouti enjoys wide popular support, Washington does not believe he is ready to assume the mantle of leadership. Fayyad, who studied in the United States and was a senior staffer at the World Bank for several years, is trusted by the administration and the international financial establishment.

Fayyad was also favored by the previous U.S. administration, and was roundly praised in an article published last week in The Weekly Standard by the former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, Elliot Abrams. Alongside the complements he had for Fayyad, Abrams was also highly critical of Fatah and the lack of leadership displayed by its two seniormost officials, Abbas and Ahmed Qureia. The article raised a storm of protest within Fatah, and one senior member told Haaretz yesterday that Abrams and other neo-conservatives like him, who ignored the expansion of the occupation and the settlements, are primarily responsible for the failure of the peace process over the past eight years.

Enhancing national dialogue

Abbas yesterday asked Fayyad to remain in his post until the successful conclusion of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks. Earlier in the day, Abbas said Fayyad's resignation would aid the negotiations with Hamas. "Fayyad's resignation comes to enhance and support the national dialogue to reach a national unity government," Abbas said.

Abbas also said he hoped a transition government could be formed by the end of March, suggesting that power-sharing talks have moved into a high gear, following failed attempts in the past.

The Palestinian prime minister's decision was meant as a confidence-building measure ahead of the resumption of Palestinian reconciliation talks on Tuesday in Cairo. Negotiators from Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement are trying to form a transition government that is to prepare for presidential and legislative elections by January 2010.

Fayyad, 57, said he would step down after the formation of a new government, but no later than the end of March. However, Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh suggested that Abbas could reappoint Fayyad if power-sharing talks fail.

Hamas seemed dismissive yesterday, arguing that the Fayyad government had been unconstitutional from the start. "This government did not work for the sake of the Palestinians, it worked for its own agenda. This end was expected for a government that was illegal and unconstitutional," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

A senior Western diplomat said Fayyad has been saying privately for weeks that he wanted to leave his post "because he doesn't see any hope" of making progress in peace talks with Israel and healing factional rifts.

Support for U.S.-educated Fayyad translated into massive amounts of foreign aid for the Palestinians. In 2007, donor countries pledged $7.7 billion over three years for the Fayyad government. Last week, the pledging conference at Sharm el-Sheikh yielded $5.2 billion over two years.

Fayyad said in a statement that he was hoping to pave the way for a unity government. "This step comes in the efforts to form a national conciliation government," he said.

Hamas officials, meanwhile, suggested that in the event of a power-sharing deal, elections could be put off for several months beyond January 2010, as the two sides try to improve their standing with voters. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal is informal and has not been raised in unity talks.