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Friday, February 16, 2007

Rice: US is not boycotting Palestinians, reserves judgement

[These two stories add to the confusion about the US stand. Palestinian sources previously announced that the US had told them they would shun the new government:
16 Feb 2007 10:09:51 GMT
Source: Reuters
DUBAI, Feb 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in comments aired on Friday that the United States had decided to boycott all ministers of a Palestinian unity government now being formed.

In an interview with Al Arabiya television, Rice said Washington would reserve judgement on the new Palestinian government until it was formed but hoped it would respect the wishes of the Quartet of Middle East mediators that it accept existing interim peace accords and recognise Israel.

"We have said we will wait until the formation of the government before we decide how to deal with it, but we have made clear that there should be a commitment to the principles of the Quartet and that is the basis on which we will judge this government," Rice said in comments that were dubbed into Arabic.

"There is no government so far and we will not judge it before its formation," she said in excerpts of the interview aired on Arabiya's news broadcasts.

It was not immediately possible to obtain the comments in their original English form.

A senior Palestinian official and diplomats said on Thursday the United States would boycott all Palestinian unity government ministers, including those who were not members of Hamas, until it was satisfied the government had met the demands of the Quartet -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally asked Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Thursday to form a unity government and urged him to respect peace accords with Israel.

Haniyeh vowed to "work in accordance" with Abbas's letter of designation but did not specifically say if Hamas would recognise the Jewish state or renounce violence.

Abbas reached an agreement with Hamas in Saudi Arabia this month over the formation of a unity government aimed at ending a Western blockade in place since Hamas came to power in March.

Rice is due to meet Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Feb 19 but uncertainty over the Palestinian unity government complicates the summit.

The meeting had been billed as the start of a new U.S. peace effort but some Israeli officials say it will now focus on U.S. and Israeli concerns over the unity government.

Rice sceptical about PA unity deal

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has said the unclear character of the new Palestinian government has complicated her meeting next week with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

"It's obviously more complicated because of the uncertainties surrounding the national unity government," Rice said, referring to the agreement between the Hamas and Fatah factions.

"But then in the Middle East if you wait for the perfect circumstances you would probably never take the airplane," Rice said in an interview with US newspaper reporters.

The talks had been billed as the start of a renewed US effort to try to broker a Middle East peace deal, but Rice and others sought to lower expectations.


Some officials in Jerusalem have said the focus would be on US and Israeli concerns about the unity government deal.

"The purpose of the trilateral is just really to begin a conversation to look on how we can move forward on what everyone believes is the most important goal of two states living side by side," said Rice.

But Middle Eastern diplomats and analysts pointed to the weakness of both Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the Palestinian president, as well as changes in the president's tactics by forging a deal with Hamas.

The Bush administration is deliberating on how to handle contacts with a new Palestinian government that includes both Hamas and Fatah.

A Palestinian official said Abbas was told that Washington would boycott all members unless international demands on policy towards Israel were met.

But Rice, who declined to discuss diplomatic conversations with the Palestinians, said Washington was holding back on making any judgments until details of a new government were known.

"We are not going to jump the gun here," she said. But Rice made clear that the US fully supported Abbas and his peace efforts with Israel.

"It would be a very big mistake to not continue to deal with him and to not continue to build on his commitment to a two-state solution and to non-violence," she said.


The US goal of bolstering Abbas and isolating Hamas has also hit a snag in congress, where a US lawmaker is blocking a request by the Bush administration for $86m to help train Abbas's security forces.

"The strategy of strengthening Abu Mazen [Abbas] over Hamas has been pre-empted and that changes both what the US was trying to do and how the US was trying to do it," said Middle East expert Jon Alterman.

Ned Walker, the former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said it was unrealistic to expect any breakthroughs from next week's three-way meeting in Jerusalem.

"It seems to me that it is good to do this, but we should not put too much of a high expectation on this and undercut the secretary and her efforts," said Walker.

Source: Agencies

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