Expectations low as talks in Mideast begin

February 19, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Questions over how to deal with the proposed Palestinian unity government overshadowed preparations yesterday for a meeting today between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that 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 ahead of the three-way session, the topic was not grand gestures of conciliation but whether Israel and the United States would agree to work with a government run jointly by Abbas' Fatah faction and the radical Hamas movement.

Rice told reporters later that Washington would wait until the new Palestinian government is formed before making a decision.

But Olmert said he and President Bush had agreed Friday that the two nations would shun the new Palestinian government unless it explicitly recognized Israel's right to exist, renounced violence and agreed to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian accords.

Palestinian officials also have said that U.S. officials have warned that the new government risks a boycott if it does not meet those conditions, which were set by the so-called Quartet - 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 Cabinet meeting.

Aides to Abbas say the power-sharing arrangement forged with Hamas two weeks ago satisfies the conditions and that the new Palestinian government should gain Western support, including a resumption of foreign aid.

Rice said the United States remains committed to working with Abbas, a relative moderate who supports 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.

"Obviously, this is a complicated time. It's a time of some uncertainty," Rice said.

U.S. officials hope to rekindle peace talks after a six-year lull and to search for what Rice calls a "political horizon" that could help bolster Palestinian moderates.

Expectations are low that the session will yield major gains, and Rice warned against hoping for dramatic results.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Abbas told Rice yesterday that he entered into the coalition agreement with Hamas to stop 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 Palestinian unity deal but appeared to take a harder line this weekend when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the understandings between Fatah and Hamas "do not meet the requirements of the international community."

During recent reconciliation talks in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian factions agreed to share power in hopes of quelling deadly clashes between their forces in the Gaza Strip and ending a debilitating international aid embargo against Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the U.S., Israel and much of the West.

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

Under the agreement, the new Palestinian government would "respect" international resolutions and agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization. While such agreements would include interim peace accords with Israel, the wording appears to fall short of the Quartet's conditions.

The new Palestinian government is to include independents and relative moderates who are members of Fatah.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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