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Modest aims at Mideast talks

As Rice meets with Olmert and Abbas, the chief issue is how to deal with Palestinians' proposed unity government.

February 19, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Questions over how to deal with the proposed Palestinian unity government overshadowed preparations Sunday for a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders today that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes can restart peace talks.

As Rice met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before the three-way session, the topic was not grand gestures of conciliation but whether Israel and the U.S. would agree to work with a government run jointly by Abbas' Fatah party and the radical Hamas movement.

Rice told reporters later that the Bush administration would wait until the new Palestinian government was formed before making a decision.

But Olmert said he and President Bush had agreed in a conversation Friday that the two nations would shun the Palestinian government unless it explicitly recognized Israel, renounced violence and agreed to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements -- all of which Hamas has refused to do.

And Palestinian officials have also said that the U.S. in recent days warned that an international boycott against the government might continue if the new leadership did not meet those conditions, which were set by the so-called quartet of global powers attempting to mediate a Mideast peace process -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

"The Israeli position and the American position concerning the status of the Palestinian government, should it prove that indeed it does not accept the quartet's principles as a basis, are identical," Olmert said at the start of the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting.

Abbas aides have sought to argue that the tentative power-sharing arrangement forged with Hamas two weeks ago satisfies the conditions, if only tacitly, and that the proposed government should gain Western support, including a resumption of foreign aid.

Rice said the United States remained committed to working with Abbas, a relative moderate who supports peace talks with Israel, even if it decides to shun the rest of the Palestinian government.

The debate over the Palestinian government loomed over discussions meant to pave the way for today's meeting in Jerusalem. Rice hopes that with her help, Olmert and Abbas will spend time during the three-way summit informally exploring the outlines of a possible peace agreement and how to get there. "Obviously, this is a complicated time. It's a time of some uncertainty," Rice said.

U.S. officials hope to rekindle peace talks after years of impasse and to search for what Rice calls a "political horizon" that could help bolster Palestinian moderates.

But expectations are low that the session will yield substantive gains, and Rice warned against hoping for dramatic results.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Abbas had explained during his meeting Sunday with Rice that he had entered into the coalition agreement with Hamas in hopes of stopping months of factional fighting. Abbas "wants very much to see the possibility of probing President Bush's vision of a two-state solution and how to get there," Erekat said.

Israel was noncommittal last week about the unity deal but appeared to take a harder line this weekend when its foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said the understandings between Fatah and Hamas "do not meet the requirements of the international community."

During reconciliation talks in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian factions agreed in principle Feb. 8 to share power in an attempt to quell deadly clashes between their forces, chiefly in the Gaza Strip, and a debilitating international aid embargo against Hamas.

The West cut off direct aid to the Palestinian government in the wake of Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections last year.

The two parties agreed to divvy Cabinet portfolios, but were deliberately vague in outlining the new government's stance toward Israel. Whereas Fatah favors a negotiated peace with Israel, Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and calls for its destruction.

Under the tentative agreement, the new Palestinian government is to "respect" international resolutions and agreements with Israel signed by Palestinian leaders. Though such agreements would include interim peace accords with Israel, the wording appears to fall short of the quartet's conditions.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who is in charge of forming the new government, urged Palestinians on Sunday to resist international pressure.

A boycott of a new government including moderates who do not belong to Hamas could undercut the already weakened Abbas. Some Israeli officials say that snubbing Abbas might push him into a tighter alliance with Hamas.

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