Fatah, Hamas Leaders to Meet in Gaza

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A relatively moderate U.S.-educated professor with ties to both Hamas and the rival Fatah Party is a leading candidate for the post of Palestinian prime minister in the emerging unity government, officials said Monday.

Mohammed Shabir, 60, did not deny he was a contender for the office but said he has not been officially designated. Shabir has a doctorate in microbiology from the University of West Virginia and until last year headed Gaza's Islamic University.

Hamas and Fatah hope that Shabir will be acceptable to the international community and help persuade the West to lift debilitating economic sanctions that have crippled the Hamas-led government since it took power in March.

The government is currently headed by Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and the West refuses to deal with him or his government because Hamas refuses to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing peace deals with Israel. Haniyeh has said he would be willing to step aside to end the sanctions.

Shabir is considered close to Hamas but not an active supporter of the Muslim group.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected separately and heads the moderate Fatah Party, has the authority to appoint the prime minister.

Fatah has suggested that Ziad Abu Amr, an independent lawmaker who has often mediated between the rivals, be foreign minister in the new government, officials close to the talks said.

Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist who served as finance minister under Abbas, has been asked to fill the same position in the new government, officials said. Fayyad, formerly an International Monetary Fund official, is open to the idea, officials close to the independent lawmaker said.

Hamas is not opposed to the appointment of Abu Amr and Fayyad, officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing.

Months of talks between Fatah and Hamas have failed to lead to the establishment of a unity government. However the rivals have reported progress in recent days, and Abbas said he hoped a government would be in place within the month.

Shabir was one of four officials presented for the post of prime minister and is considered to be the leading candidate, a Hamas official close to the talks said.

"No one has informed me officially of this designation. This report can become a reality only if President Abbas designates me officially as prime minister," Shabir told The Associated Press.

Shabir, who served as president of the Islamic University for 15 years before retiring in August 2005, is not an active Hamas loyalist. During his years in the powerful academic post, Shabir kept ties with all the Palestinian factions, including that of Yasser Arafat.

Shabir, originally from the Gaza town of Khan Younis, lives in Gaza City with his six children and his wife, who serves as deputy to the minister of women's affairs.

"We are expecting the declaration on the identity of the prime minister to be in the coming days," Abu Amr said, but declined to say whether he is a candidate for foreign minister.

The international boycott has made it largely impossible for Hamas to pay its 165,000 civil workers, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and leading to discontent among Palestinians, who have taken to the streets in sometimes violent protests and held prolonged strikes that kept schools shut for two months.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing peace deals as conditions for lifting the sanctions. Until now, Hamas has rejected the conditions, and officials involved in the unity talks said the new government would be vague on the three principles.