Impasse Over Palestinian Militants Overshadows Peace Summit

Sunday, February 18th 2007, 2:36 pm
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Hoping to turn the page on six years of stalled Mideast negotiations, the U.S. instead found itself boxed in Sunday by a characteristically complex political impasse involving ally Israel and the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to the region intending to lead a symbolic peace summit. Her plans, however, have been eclipsed amid uncertainty and disagreement over how to handle last week's sudden announcement of a power-sharing deal to end internal Palestinian fighting.

Rice met for two hours with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resolute in his position that he must govern hand-in-hand with Hamas militants who refuse to moderate anti-Israeli policies. The United States consider Hamas a terrorist group.

Later Sunday, the U.S. diplomat held a similarly long meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over a similarly hard-line position.

Israel will not recognize a Palestinian government that refuses to renounce violence, honor past commitments and accept Israel's right to exist.

Olmert says Washington agrees and will shun the new government. U.S. officials, however, are not going that far _ yet.

The United States, still hoping Abbas will change Hamas or change his mind, says it will reserve judgment until the planned Palestinian government takes shape.

Rice acknowledged that the moment is awkward for discussions of peace. But she wanted to go ahead with Monday's summit with Abbas and Olmert.

``We could have decided not to meet during this time, but I actually think that when people have questions and want to explore issues that arise out of something like the agreement to form a national unity government that it's better that they be able to do it face to face,'' Rice told reporters.

The meeting was planned before Abbas made his pact with Hamas. The gathering was meant to offer weary Palestinians a brighter vision for their future by opening a discussion of the contours of an eventual Palestinian state.

It also was a way to strengthen Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas, which surprised the Bush administration by defeating Abbas' secular Fatah Party in elections 13 months ago.

Although U.S. officials brush off any suggestion the pact has tainted Abbas, diplomats have not hidden their displeasure with both the content and timing of the deal he made.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel has said it would boycott Abbas, who is widely known by his nickname, Abu Mazen. As head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he would represent the Palestinians in any peace talks. Negotiations broke down more than six years ago in an explosion of violence between the two sides.

``I think that we can continue to work with Abu Mazen, continue to discuss with Abu Mazen, continue to explore with Abu Mazen,'' Rice said.

Rice was the latest U.S. official to lower expectations for Monday's meeting even as she described a deep commitment to the larger goal of peace.

``Nobody is at the point of talking about a deal,'' Rice said. ``We're talking about ... what the destination might look like.''

Many of the core questions that frame the hoped-for destination _ an independent Palestine alongside Israel _ apparently would not be on the table Monday. Those include the borders and the fate of disputed areas of Jerusalem.

Israeli leaders were lukewarm about the session even before Abbas' deal; some have been openly skeptical since.

The United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia have said jointly that a Palestinian government must renounce violence, abide by past agreements with Israel and others and accept Israel's right to exist.

The four-member group, known as the Quartet, is the steward of a mothballed 2003 peace plan. The group has taken no position yet on whether Abbas' pact with Hamas meets that test, but Rice said Palestinian statehood rests on it.

``I don't think that there's any doubt that ... an agreement to have a Palestinian state and then the actual standing of a Palestinian state is going to have to be on the basis of a government that accepts the right of Israel to exist,'' Rice said. ``I can't imagine it any other way.''

Abbas has had a simple message for U.S. diplomats unhappy with his planned coalition: Take it or leave it. On Sunday, he told Rice the deal with Hamas was the best he could get and asked her to give it a chance, his aides said.

Abbas had tried during months of coalition talks to press Hamas to agree to abide by existing peace accords _ something that would imply recognition of Israel. He yielded after many rounds of deadly Palestinian infighting.

More than 130 Palestinians have died in street clashes and other attacks that have alarmed both Palestinians and Israelis, sapped political momentum and threatened to erode Abbas' authority.

``The Americans told us that this agreement is not meeting (international) conditions,'' for diplomatic recognition and vital aid, said an Abbas aide, Yasser Abed Rabbo. ``But we have an understanding with Rice that they will wait until we see this government declare its program.''

Olmert said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday that he and President Bush had spoken by phone on Friday about the deal and agreed the Palestinians had to go further.

``A Palestinian government that won't accept the Quartet conditions won't receive recognition and cooperation,'' Olmert said. ``The American and Israeli positions are totally identical on this issue.''