Split Emerging Among Israel, U.S. And Europe Over Approach To Palestinians

Thursday, March 22nd 2007, 2:23 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States is in the middle of an emerging division among allies in Israel and Europe over how to deal with a Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas militants alongside Western-backed moderates.

The differences are subtle so far, with Israel taking the toughest line against the power-sharing deal and Europe the most lenient. That leaves the Bush administration working to preserve its foothold in Mideast peace efforts and hard-fought harmony with European nations.

There were no public splits as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saw a stream of European diplomats this week. But diplomats and analysts say it will be hard to maintain a unified front for long.

Differences may be more apparent this weekend when Rice will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The U.S plans to keep up contacts with select non-Hamas members of the new Palestinian Cabinet, a degree of flexibility that Israel refuses.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's tough position perplexes some Israelis who see the unified Palestinian government as an opportunity to renew peace talks, which in turn could help Olmert reverse a slide in his poll numbers.

``I would encourage Israel to follow the American policy'' of broader contact, a member of Israeli's parliament, Yossi Beilin, said during a visit to Washington this week.

International peacemakers have put off consideration of some of the most difficult questions posed by the new government, which was meant to present a more moderate face to the world and win the resumption of crucial international aid.

``We try to maintain a position which is common, but everybody knows that the positions deep down are slightly different,'' said a senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe discussions with U.S. and other counterparts.

Some European governments and Russia have signaled that the power-sharing deal sealed last weekend is the best the West could have hoped for and that it is time to end the yearlong diplomatic impasse and aid embargo.

Israel and the West imposed a painful aid boycott on the Palestinian government after Hamas won 2005 parliamentary elections. The surprise Hamas victory chilled nascent efforts toward peace with Israel and set up a political and military standoff with the defeated Palestinian Fatah faction.

Israel is lobbying hard for a continuation of the boycott because the reordered Hamas-Fatah government fails to meet international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by international agreements made by previous Palestinian leaders.

The Bush administration says the Palestinians cannot fudge on those demands and the U.S. will not alter its policy of refusing direct dealings or financial support for Hamas. The Islamist military and political organization is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group.

Thomas Risse, a professor at the Free University of Berlin's Center for Transnational Relations, said U.S.-European differences are a matter of degree, with ``the U.S. simply taking a little more confrontational approach.''

Europe appears more willing to give the Hamas coalition the benefit of the doubt _ that vague or open-ended statements in the government platform amount to de facto acceptance of Israel and previous Palestinian peace deals.

Although careful not to condemn the new government or its platform, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the government's insistence on a right to ``resistance'' was a disturbing position. The language is widely read as code for terrorism and violence.

In Europe, however, some diplomats urge patience. Does it matter more, the senior diplomat said, that Hamas has not expressly rejected violence if it simply refrains from any further attacks?

There are differences among European nations themselves on these points, and the Palestinian government is expected to be a main topic at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers this month.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will assess the government when she follows Rice to the Middle East next week. Germany currently holds the E.U. presidency.

Few expect an immediate return to peace talks, and a shooting attack by Hamas militants Monday showed the difficulties ahead.

The wounding of an Israeli civilian came shortly after Norway's deputy foreign minister, on the first visit by a high-ranking Western official to Hamas officials in Gaza, urged the world to follow his nation's lead in recognizing the new coalition.

Israel, the United States and Europe all agree that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deserves continued support. Abbas has committed to seek peace with Israel and would be his government's designated negotiator in any new talks.

It is unclear whether Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately, retains enough pull among Palestinians and within the new government structure to make any lasting deals.

The government deal disappointed U.S. officials because Abbas was unable to persuade Hamas to drop its most extreme positions. But Abbas has argued that he needed the deal to stop deadly Palestinian factional fighting.

Rice's meetings with him will be her first since the new government was formed.