Abbas Postpones Formation of Unity Government in Bid to Appease Western Allies

PA leaders fear unity government will derail efforts to win UN nod in September to establish Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may hold off on the formation of a unity government with the Islamic militant group Hamas to avoid alienating his Western allies ahead of a UN vote on statehood, a senior PLO official said Thursday.

Palestinian leaders had apparently underestimated international opposition, particularly from the U.S., to any Hamas involvement in the government and are afraid that it will derail efforts to win the UN nod in September to establish a Palestinian state.

Abbas with Mashaal - AP - May 4, 2011

Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Washington and the European Union because it continues to reject the three conditions for international acceptance—recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and respecting previous agreements with Israel.

Abbas' Fatah Party and Hamas signed a unity deal in Cairo this May in a bid to end a four-year-rift that left the more moderate Fatah administering the West Bank, and Islamist Hamas controlling Gaza. This split was considered a major obstacle to the formation of a future Palestinian state.

The two parties had planned to hold elections for the creation of a new joint government, but Abbas has expressed concern that a unity government might be rejected by the West.

The Palestinian president does not want to wage two diplomatic battles for recognition of an alliance with the Islamic militants and for a U.N. nod to statehood at the same time, according to the PLO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Hamas officials responded to the report on Thursday, saying they had not received a formal request to put off talks on the formation of a unity government. Another serious point of contention is the naming of a prime minister; Hamas has rejected the possibility of Fatahs Salam Fayyad for premiership, while Fatah has refused to back down on the matter.

Abbas said Thursday that negotiations are continuing, but he hinted at difficulties. "I hope that we will succeed, but it needs a little bit of effort," he told reporters during a visit to the Netherlands.

The PLO official said Abbas' priority is to obtain UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem when the UN General Assembly meets in September. It would be a largely symbolic step that the Palestinians hope will nonetheless improve their leverage against Israel. Abbas was in the Netherlands as part of an international tour to drum up support for recognition.

Abbas has attempted to reach an acceptable arrangement for the formation of a unity government comprised ostensibly of apolitical experts approved by Hamas and Fatah. However, it's not clear if President Barack Obama's administration, which has been critical of Abbas' reconciliation with an unreformed Hamas, would accept such a constellation.

Abbas has claimed that any future government would be committed to his moderate program for Palestinian statehood, including the quest for a peace deal with Israel. Despite this, it remains to be seen whether such assurances would be sufficient to assuage Western concerns.

The Palestinian official said Abbas does not want to form a unity government only to have it boycotted by the West, and that he wants to avoid new complications while he is pursuing the U.N. option.

Despite the postponement in forming a joint government, contacts between Hamas and Fatah are continuing, the official said.

However, a recent report from Maan News Agency revealed that Palestinian security forces have been cracking down on Hamas members in the West Bank, and 68 members of the Islamist group have been arrested, according to statement by Hamas.

Thirty-nine of those who were arrested were ex-prisoners freed from Israeli jails, while seven political prisoners were brought to military trials, the statement said.