Abbas Swears in Hamas-Fatah Unity Government

Abbas: PA extends hand to Israel, rejects violence; Haniyeh: Resistance is 'legitimate right' of Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday swore in the new Hamas-Fatah coalition government, hours after the Palestinian parliament overwhelming approved the government, clearing a final formal hurdle before taking on the challenge of persuading a skeptical world to end a crippling year-long boycott of the Palestinian government.

Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced on Saturday that the first cabinet meeting of the new national coalition would be held on Sunday in both Gaza and Ramallah.

Palestinian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly - 83 to 3 - to approve the alliance, then leaped to their feet in a standing ovation after the result was announced.

Forty-one of the legislature's 132 members, most of them members of Hamas, are imprisoned in Israeli jails and were unable to vote. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah swore in the new 25-member Cabinet shortly after the parliament session.

The coalition stopped short of explicitly recognizing Israel or renouncing violence, leading Israel to announce promptly that its boycott of the Palestinian government - imposed after Hamas swept to power last year - would continue.

But other countries and the United Nations said they were encouraged by the formation of a government more accommodating of Israel than its Hamas-led predecessor.

Norway immediately recognized the new coalition and announced it would lift sanctions. Britain and the UN signaled flexibility - suggesting the wall of opposition to the Palestinian government could start crumbling if the coalition keeps anti-Israel activities in check.

The Hamas-Fatah merger is not a solid one, however, and could unravel over ideological differences, and years of enmity between the two factions.

The rise to power of Hamas, a group that has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings, provoked the international community to impose severe funding restrictions last year in a bid to pressure the militants to recognize Israel, disarm and accept past peace accords.

A mixed bag of messages emerged Saturday from the political platform that was announced, and from the speeches leaders of the governing factions made to parliament. But, in sum, they reflected a softening of Hamas' stance toward Israel.

Presenting the government's program to parliament, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas appeared to implicitly recognize Israel by calling for a Palestinian state on lands the Israelis captured in 1967.

He said the Palestinians maintained the right to resist occupation, but would also seek to widen a truce with Israel, now limited to the Gaza Strip.

Abbas, a moderate, focused on conciliatory language, asserting that the Palestinian people reject violence in all its forms and seek a comprehensive peace of freedom and equality that would be based on negotiations.

Whie the new government's platform didn't meet international conditions for acceptance, it pledged to respect previous peace deals between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It also called for peace talks to be conducted by Abbas, and for any future deal to be submitted to a national referendum, suggesting Hamas would not enjoy veto power.

The new finance minister, Salam Fayyad, warned that the new government would not be able to function for long unless the international community lifted its boycott and increased assistance.

"We face a very serious and crippling financial crisis," he said. "Without the help of the international community, it is not going to be possible for us to sustain our operations."

Egypt, a leading regional mediator, urged the international community to stop isolating the Palestinian government. Its foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, called the new coalition a precious opportunity to resume the peace process.

But Israel saw things differently. Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel would deal with Abbas, but not with the new government unless it recognizes the Jewish state.

"With all the desire we all have to assist the Palestinian people, this new government does not stand for any of the international principles that the international community itself defined," Eisin said.

And Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev called on the international community not to deal with the new government.

But other countries were more encouraged by the Hamas-Fatah alliance.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere announced that Oslo would reestablish political and economic relations with the new Palestinian government, saying the coalition was taking important steps toward complying with international demands.

The UN's Mideast envoy, Alvaro de Soto, and the British Foreign Office both called the alliance a step in the right direction and said they would watch to see how the new government would implement its political program.

The U.S., however, which led the boycott, has been cool to the coalition plan.