Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions that reached a unity agreement last month, began negotiating in Cairo this morning over who would lead the new government. According to press reports and sources close to the sides, negotiators reached a consensus on a new leader, to replace current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is seen as close to Fatah. But negotiators are keeping the name under wraps until next Tuesday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal are expected to officially mark the agreement.
"We have agreed that the talks will be finalized next Tuesday, on June 21, with the participation of Abbas and Khaled Mashal," a Fatah representative said in Cairo earlier today.
The choice could have major near-term repercussions for Palestinian statehood. The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if the candidate is seen as too close to Hamas.
Perhaps wary that he might be soon losing American support, Abbas is in Saudi Arabia today, trying to get more money from the kingdom's leaders, according to a Washington-based source.
Finding a choice to fill the leadership role seemed less than certain just this past weekend. On Sunday, Hamas firmly rejected Fatah's nomination of Fayyad, who is credited with helping to build up institutions and commerce in the West Bank (and was a representative favored by the United States). Hamas opposed him because, as prime minister of the Fatah-led government, he is blamed for supporting the arrests of Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank.
"For us, Fayyad is unacceptable because his name is connected with a black phase in the history of the Palestinian people," a Hamas official, Taher al-Nounou, told the New York Times.
Analysts say they are keeping the name under wraps so that both sides can minimize any campaign against the nominee. The negotiations have included only a very small circle of people close to Abbas and Mashal. And there are some in both camps who will likely disagree with the choice.
One Middle East analyst speculated, "At some level, both sides probably felt it was better not to reach an agreement for a while and keep things going as they are."
The two sides agreed earlier this year to establish a government of unaffiliated ministers, mainly made up of technocrats, and to prepare for elections within a year.
Mark Perry, an independent Mideast analyst, said the candidate would probably have to be someone from the West Bank, since it would be difficult to negotiate with a prime minister who is based in Gaza, since traveling to the capital Ramallah is not possible. But the candidate would likely have some affiliation with Hamas.
"Hamas is actually the stronger party at the table" in these negotiations, Perry said. "They won the election in 2006. It will be hard for Abu Mazen [Abbas] to argue their role should be diminished."