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Palestinians Approve Coalition Gov't

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new Hamas-Fatah coalition Saturday, hours after it won overwhelming parliament approval.

One by one, members of the 25-member Cabinet started stepping forward to take the oath of office. The 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 new coalition clears 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.

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.

Norway is a key player in Middle East peacemaking and one of the most steadfast contributors to the Palestinian Authority. Secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, led to a historic Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in 1993.

"Norway expects the Palestinian authorities to respect basic international standards as regards compliance with previously concluded agreements, renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel's right to exist," Stoere said.

He also called on Israel to "take a constructive approach to the Unity Government, for example by releasing withheld Palestinian revenues from taxes and fees and by increasing the freedom of movement for the Palestinian population."

Israel has said it will not do business with the coalition.

"We expect the international community, the U.S., the EU, to look clearly at the new government," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, noting that Norway was not an EU member.

"With all the desire we all have to assist the Palestinian people, this new government does not stand for any of the international principles that the international community itself defined," she said.

"It is essential that the Unity Government gains control of the security situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and that the rocket attacks on Israeli areas cease," he added.

The Norwegian foreign minister said the new Palestinian government should "make an active effort" to secure the release of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied militants in June.

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.

The new government "respects" previous international agreements reached by the PLO and calls for peace talks to be conducted by Palestinian President Mahmoud 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.

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.

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."

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