Friday, February 23, 2007

After the 'mecca agreement'

By Helene Cooper, NY Times

BERLIN: Fractures between the United States and Europe have begun to appear over whether the new Palestinian unity government is likely to receive international economic support, even as the Middle East peace negotiators officially continue their wait-and-see approach.

After the meeting here of representatives of the so-called quartet of Middle East peace negotiators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — the group released a statement on Wednesday that "reaffirmed" its support for a Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly that unless the new unity government meets those conditions, the United States will continue its economic boycott of the Palestinian government. So far, that government, which includes the moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, and the militant Islamic movement Hamas, does not.

But European officials appeared more willing to hold out the possibility of finding members of a new unity government with whom to work. "There are ways that we can be flexible," one European official said.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who has said that the United States and Europe should look for ways to engage Hamas, was pointed during a news conference about not threatening to continue the boycott if the new government did not recognize Israel.

"Clearly in this statement we support the formation of a new Palestinian government," Lavrov said. "It was also underscored that further steps must be taken to support the Palestinians. One certainly shouldn't speak of a boycott in this regard."

In the U.S. Congress, Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, is blocking $86 million that the Bush administration wants to strengthen Abbas's security forces. An aide to Lowey said she would lift the hold when the State Department provided guarantees that the money would be used only for nonlethal security assistance.

The United States and other Western countries cut off close to $1 billion in direct aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.

The United States will have a tough balancing act as it tries to keep the quartet united in an economic boycott of the Palestinian government while trying to bolster Abbas in peace talks with Israel.

Those talks, which began Monday with a summit meeting between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, ended a few hours later with little signs of progress.

Abbas has maintained that he agreed to the pact to end the violence between Hamas and Fatah, which has left more than 100 Palestinians dead.

In Jerusalem, Olmert said Wednesday that he was willing to meet "again and again" with Abbas. But he also made clear that serious peace negotiations were unlikely to take place unless the Palestinian government was willing to recognize Israel.

"The agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas does not promise any change in the basic policy toward Israel," Olmert said at a news conference.

Hamas says it does not object to Abbas negotiating with Israel. But Abbas has limited authority, and Olmert had indicated that would limit the scope of their discussions.

Greg Myre contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

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