Palestinian president halts talks with Hamas, demands more concessions

Sunday, September 17th 2006, 6:58 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ U.S. demands that a new Palestinian government recognize Israel have forced moderate President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant group Hamas to delay talks on forming a coalition, Palestinian officials said Sunday.

The delay is a setback for Abbas, who had hoped that drawing Hamas into a coalition would soften its anti-Israel ideology and pave the way for the international community to lift crippling economic sanctions.

``What's the point of forming a government if this government is saying that it won't recognize agreements signed with Israel,'' Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant, told The Associated Press. ``The whole point is to break the deadlock in the peace process and bring an end to the siege.''

The so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers _ the U.S., European Union, Russia and United Nations _ say Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements for aid to resume.

``We expect any government to accept the Quartet principles,'' said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman at the consulate in Jerusalem.

But the current platform for the unity government falls short of these demands, and Hamas leaders said over the weekend said they would not soften their stance any further, infuriating Abbas, Palestinian officials sad.

On Saturday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said his group would not recognize past peace deals.

U.S. Consul-General Jacob Walles told Abbas Saturday that the new government would be unacceptable unless these conditions are met, officials said.

``America was not very happy, Europe was not so happy. Nobody was happy, but Abbas was doing his best to convince them,'' said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an Abbas aide. ``Hamas has undermined his efforts.''

Abbas hopes to use a meeting with President Bush Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to garner support for the coalition, officials said. Abbas will try to convince Bush that the alternative to a Fatah-Hamas government is civil war and ask him to soften the demands to allow Hamas to sign on to a coalition, officials said.

He also hopes to put pressure on the Islamic group to agree to international demands that it recognize Israel and accept past peace deals.

Caving in to months of economic sanctions, the Hamas government announced last week that it would form a coalition with Abbas' moderate Fatah Party.

The Hamas Cabinet resigned on Wednesday, and Abbas vowed 165,000 civil workers would be paid. The employees have not been paid since Hamas took power in March and sanctions were slapped on the hard-line government.

On Sunday, Haniyeh said talks with Abbas would continue when the president returns from New York.

``If we were to always bend to the will of America we would absolutely never have a state, an existence or honor,'' Haniyeh told reporters.

Although Hamas-Fatah talks will continue, Erekat and Abed Rabbo both questioned whether it would be possible in the end for the sides to bridge their differences and establish a joint government.

``I don't know if the deal is aborted. We will see in the near future,'' Abed Rabbo said.

Meanwhile, Israeli diplomatic and security officials said Sunday that Israel is making progress in its efforts to secure the release of a soldier captured by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip. It was the first sign from Israel that a deal could be worked out with the serviceman's captors.

As part of the contacts, which are overseen by Egyptian mediators, Cpl. Gilad Shalit's father received a letter from his son as a sign that he is alive, the security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press about the sensitive matter.