Palestinian Parliament Approves Hamas-Fatah Coalition

The new Hamas-Fatah coalition won overwhelming parliamentary approval Saturday, clearing a final formal hurdle before taking on the challenge of persuading a skeptical world to end a crippling yearlong boycott of the Palestinian government.

After the 83-3 vote was announced, lawmakers jumped up for a standing ovation. In all, parliament has 132 members, but 41 are in Israeli detention. Hours later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the 25-member Cabinet.

Presenting the government's program ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the coalition wants to set up a Palestinian state in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War. He said the Palestinians affirm the right to resist occupation, but will also seek to expand a truce with Israel.

The platform fell short of international conditions for acceptance, including explicit recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence.

Israel reiterated Saturday that it will not deal with the new government, while a senior U.N. official signaled flexibility. "This is a significant step in the right direction," said Alvaro de Soto, special U.N. coordinator for the Middle East, who attended the session. "We will be watching with interest to see how this program is implemented."

Moments after the new government was approved, Norway — a key player in Mideast peacemaking and a steadfast contributor to the Palestinian Authority — said it would normalize relations with the Hamas-Fatah coalition.

The swearing-in ceremony was held simultaneously in Gaza City and Ramallah in the West Bank, with a video link, because Israeli travel bans prevented the government ministers from gathering in one place.

The coalition replaces a government led by the Islamic militant Hamas, which carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel and swept parliamentary elections last year. Hamas' ascent to power drew down bruising international sanctions meant to pressure it to recognize Israel and accept past peace accords.

The incoming Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, said the new government will not be able to function for long unless the aid boycott ends.

Fayyad told The Associated Press he hopes he can meet with foreign officials to explain the Palestinians' financial situation. "We do 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."

The new government "respects" previous international agreements reached by the PLO and calls for peace talks to be conducted by Abbas, a moderate who leads the Fatah party. Any future deal could be submitted to a national referendum, suggesting that Hamas would not have veto power.

Haniyeh said the government wants to expand a cease-fire with Israel, yet also "affirms that resistance in all its means" is a Palestinian right.

In his speech to parliament, Abbas said Saturday that the Palestinian people "reject violence in all its forms" and seek a comprehensive, negotiated peace.

Abbas said the Palestinians extend their hand to Israel "to achieve the peace of freedom and equality," and urge it to make a "mutual commitment ... to stop all violence."

The two speeches underscored that even though the ideological gaps between Hamas and Fatah are narrowing, fundamental differences remain.

Later Saturday, Abbas is to swear in the coalition, formed after months of stop-and-go negotiations interrupted by periods of deadly factional fighting that claimed more than 140 lives.

Brushing aside international misgivings about Fatah joining forces with Hamas, Abbas has said it is the only way to avert a civil war in the West Bank and Gaza.

Haniyeh also addressed these misgivings in his speech.

"The challenges are many, and so are the difficulties," he said. "Those who wait for mistakes are many. ... All are waiting to see what the national unity government will offer, will it be up to the challenge."

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel will deal with Abbas, but not with the new government unless it recognizes the Jewish state. "Israel has openly stated in its government program a two-state solution, (two states) alongside each other," Eisin said.

International reaction toward the Palestinian government has been generally cautious.

Russia has been the most positive, saying the new Palestinian government has taken international demands "into account."

The British Foreign Office called the formation of a national unity government "a step in the right direction." But a spokesman stopped short of endorsing the new government's platform.

The U.S. was more subdued. White House spokesman Tony Snow indicated Thursday that there would be no change in the Bush administration's refusal to deal with the Palestinian government unless its platform changed.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Saturday urged an end to the international boycott, saying the new government was a "precious opportunity to resume the peace process."