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Peace and practicality

The U.S. must be creative to avert a diplomatic split with Europe on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

March 21, 2007

AS IF PURSUING a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians weren't difficult enough, the United States now faces the added complication of dissension from some of its European allies. Averting an open split may require some creative diplomacy by the Bush administration.

On Tuesday, France announced that it favored a resumption in European Union aid to the Palestinian Authority now that the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas has formed a coalition government with the Islamic party Hamas. Meanwhile, Germany's ambassador to Britain was suggesting "more active input from Europe" in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a seemingly innocent suggestion that may unnerve Israelis, who long have distrusted European intentions.

There is a danger that some European countries -- with the notable exception of Britain -- will "go wobbly" (as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might say) by easing the current pressure on the new Palestinian government to recognize Israel's right to exist. But the best way for Washington to preserve a united front may be to join its European allies in maintaining lines of communication to moderate members of the Palestinian coalition.

That, indeed, is what the Bush administration is doing even as it refuses to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel -- one of the requirements of the so-called quartet of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. The other conditions are that Hamas renounce violence and accept past peace agreements.

On Tuesday, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem met the Palestinian finance minister in the West Bank town of Ramallah. In authorizing such a contact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was breaking ranks with Israel, which has refused to talk to representatives of the Hamas-Fatah coalition. But, now as in the past, some daylight between the U.S. and Israeli positions is desirable -- for both Israel and the United States -- because it allows Washington to play interlocutor.

The Bush administration rightly is drawing the line, however, in refusing to restore aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas satisfies the quartet's conditions. And Hamas has not done so. In a speech last Saturday, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, defended "resistance in all its forms" even as Abbas was pleading with Palestinians to reject "all forms of violence." On Monday, a Hamas sniper shot and wounded an Israeli electric company worker near the Gaza border.

Fortunately, an embargo on aid to the Palestinian Authority hasn't prevented humanitarian assistance from reaching Palestinians through organizations such as the U.N.'s World Food Program. That fact makes it easier for the United States to argue -- even as it talks to Palestinian moderates -- that the quartet must hang tough with Hamas.

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