The rival Fatah and Hamas movements on Monday agreed on a candidate for prime minister of their emerging coalition government, turning to a US-educated professor to end months of infighting and help lift a painful international aid boycott.
The deal was the strongest sign of progress in the negotiations, which have dragged on for months. But it remained unclear if the new government, which negotiators said could be named within a week, will be acceptable to the West -- especially if it keeps balking at the key issue of recognizing Israel.
Both Israel and the US signaled a willingness on Monday to talk to the Palestinian government if it moderates itself, though each said they'll have to see the program of the new government before passing judgment.
The compromise deal to make Mohammed Shabir prime minister was announced in Syria by Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top official in Hamas' exiled leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah also supports the nomination, aides said.
Hamas and Fatah are hopeful that the 60-year-old Shabir, a soft-spoken intellectual with a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University, will help persuade Israel and the West to lift economic sanctions imposed after the current Hamas-led government took office in March.
The international community says the Palestinian government must renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist -- conditions that Hamas repeatedly rejected.
Shabir has never voiced his positions on Israel in public, but colleagues describe him as pragmatic. Speaking to Israel's Haaretz daily, Shabir signaled a willingness to deal with Israel, saying he would act ``realistically'' if he is formally nominated.
Shabir is well-known in the Gaza Strip and has the stature to bridge the differences between Hamas and Abbas' more moderate Fatah.
Months of talks between Fatah and Hamas have failed to lead to the establishment of a unity government. In recent days, however, both sides said progress had been made, and Abbas said he hoped a government would be in place by the end of the month.
Negotiators said on Monday they are close to agreement on two other key appointments.
Respected economist Salam Fayyad is being considered for the post of finance minister, a job he held until the Hamas-led government took office. Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, was credited with fighting mismanagement and cronyism.
The leading candidate for the third key post, foreign minister, is Ziad Abu Amr, an independent lawmaker with ties to both factions, officials close to the talks said. Abu Amr has mediated between Hamas and Fatah in the past. The post is currently being held by a Hamas hard-liner, Mahmoud Zahar.
Palestinian negotiators said on Monday they expect an agreement within a week. After that, the rival sides plan to go to Egypt for a signing ceremony, to be attended by Arab dignitaries.