Palestinian PM reshuffles Cabinet in West Bank

AP News

5/16/2012 2:45:17 PM - AP News

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad replaced almost half of his West Bank-based Cabinet on Wednesday, a clear sign that efforts to end the Palestinian political split are stuck.

A unity deal reached in February was to have ended five years of separate Palestinian governments, one run by Fayyad in the West Bank and the other by the Islamic militant Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Under its terms, President Mahmoud Abbas was to head an interim unity government ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections.

However, repeated disagreements between the two factions as well as within them have held up implementation.

By rearranging the Cabinet in the West Bank, Fayyad and his boss Abbas signaled the split is likely to continue for some time. The 24-member government sworn in Wednesday had 11 new members.

According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa, Abbas told the new Cabinet that its priority should be to conduct municipal elections that have been delayed repeatedly. Such elections would likely be held only in the West Bank, another sign that implementation of the unity agreement does not seem close.

Abbas and Hamas have had bitter ideological differences, with Abbas pursuing a deal with Israel and Hamas dismissing such talks as a waste of time. Efforts to bring the two groups together have repeatedly stalled but February's agreement, signed in Doha, Qatar, seemed to bring reconciliation _ key to any statehood ambitions _ within reach for the first time since 2007.

Under the Doha agreement, Abbas was to lead an interim unity government of independent technocrats for several months, until elections. But since it was announced, rifts have emerged. Hamas leaders in Gaza balked at the idea of relinquishing power to Abbas who, in turn, has been apprehensive about engaging in a partnership with the Islamists that could turn off Western donors.

Fayyad, an economist who is widely respected in the West, is expected to remain as prime minister until a unity government is forged.

The reshuffle drew criticism from Hamas.

"Any reformation of the government in the West Bank, or even any Cabinet reshuffle, is wrong and with this they are avoiding the Doha announcement," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Israel had condemned the Doha deal, warning that any rapprochement between Abbas and Hamas would close the door to future peace talks.