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Palestinians Agree To Coalition

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agreed on Monday that their moderate Fatah and militant Hamas parties would form a coalition government — a move the Palestinians hope would ease crippling international sanctions.

There were no immediate details on the provisions of the developing coalition agreement, or whether it would go far enough to end the international economic siege. But both sides said it was based on a proposal that many have interpreted to imply recognition of Israel, a key international demand.

The West and Israel have been withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from the Hamas-led government, which swept January parliamentary elections, because of the group's refusal to disarm, recognize Israel and accept existing peace agreements.

Hamas' has been unable to pay the salaries of 165,000 government employees since it took power six months ago, leaving the Palestinian Authority in disarray, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

In other developments:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says if Hamas militants in Gaza release an Israeli soldier kidnapped more than two months ago, the peace process would get a boost. "I remain dedicated to advancing the political process with the Palestinians," Olmert said.
  • Al Qaeda's No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri denounced U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon as "hostile to Islam" and warned in a new videotape aired Monday that Israel and Persian Gulf countries would be al Qaeda's next targets. The video was one of a flurry of messages the terror group put out to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
  • Olmert is coming under increasing pressure to open an official investigation into the perceived failures of the war in Lebanon, reports Berger. Former Israeli Defense minister Moshe Arens says the government and army mishandled the war. "First of all, we lost. And we lost to a very small group of people, 5,000 Hezbollah fighters, which should have been no match at all to the IDF," he said.
  • An angry protester accusing Tony Blair of complicity in the recent Israeli bombardment of Lebanon disrupted a news conference in Beirut, while thousands more shouted outside to protest his visit to Lebanon. "This visit is an insult," the woman shouted. "Shame on you, Tony Blair."

    Hamas and Fatah have been negotiating for months to form a coalition. Abbas interrupted a meeting with Haniyeh on Monday to invite Palestinian media to hear his announcement.

    "The continuous efforts to form a national unity government have ended successfully with the announcement of a political program for this government," Abbas told Palestinian television and the official WAFA news agency. "Efforts in the next few days will continue to complete the formation of the national unity government."

    "The national interest requires that all our people unite to head in stable steps so we can achieve victory by establishing our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," Abbas added.

    Ismail Haniyeh, who said earlier in the day that he would retain his post under such a government, confirmed that the two parties planned to rule together.

    "I bring good news to the Palestinian people and I feel proud and content that at this important moment we establish a national coalition government," Haniyeh said.

    Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the president would dissolve the existing Hamas-led government within 48 hours to pave the way for the formation of a coalition.

    Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, said final details of the coalition agreement had to be ironed out. Those details will help to decide whether the new coalition, if formed, wins the recognition the international community has denied the Hamas-only government.

    Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel hoped any future Palestinian government would accept the three international demands, and facilitate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants more than two months ago.

  • "If that were to happen, we would have a re-energized peace process and new momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue," Regev said.

    Hamas officials said the agreement did not amount to direct recognition of Israel. But elements of the platform — including acceptance of an Arab plan for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement — suggest recognition of the Jewish state.

    The agreement to join forces indicates Hamas has buckled under crushing sanctions imposed to pressure it to moderate its anti-Israel ideology.

    Initially, Palestinians held the West and Israel to blame for their misfortune, but in recent weeks, began directing that criticism at the Hamas-led government. Tens of thousands of civil servants launched an open-ended strike last week to protest the government's failure to pay them for the past six months.

    Western aid and Israeli transfer payments, now withheld, had been the main source of government salaries before Hamas took power. Government salaries provide for one-third of the Palestinian people, and the payment of erratic, small stipends has done little to alleviate the impoverishment of many Palestinians.

    Both Abbas and Haniyeh urged workers to return to their jobs, but a union spokesman, Bassem Hadaida, said the strike would continue.

    Ziad Abu Amr, an independent lawmaker who participated in the Abbas-Haniyeh meeting, said he expected the government would be formed "very quickly because the president and prime minister are eager to end the internal and external crisis that the Palestinian people are facing."

    The proposal that would form the basis of the coalition's political program calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, acceptance of U.N. resolutions calling for a territorial settlement, and an end to violence inside the borders of sovereign Israel. It also calls for acceptance of an Arab initiative that would lead to a comprehensive settlement of the Mideast conflict.

    Israel has rejected the plan, which would require a full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

    (AP Photo/IntelCenter)
    Al-Zawahri (shown at right in an April 2006 videotape), in his latest videotape, condemned the U.N. peacekeeping force now deploying in Lebanon under terms set out in a U.N. cease-fire resolution.

    "What is so terrible in this resolution ... is that it approves the existence of the Jewish state and isolates our mujahedeen in Palestine from Muslims in Lebanon," he said in excerpts of the video aired on Al-Jazeera television.

    Egyptian-born Al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, criticized the West for supplying Israel with weapons, and called on the Muslim world "to rush with everything at its disposal to the aid of its Muslim brothers in Lebanon and Gaza."

    He sharply criticized Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, accusing them of siding with Israel in the fighting in Lebanon.

    Egypt has willingly "abandoned its commitment to aid any Arab country against an Israeli aggression," he said. "The collusion of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan is very clear."

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