February 17, 2007 / 11:38 AM / 12 years ago

Rice pursues Mideast peace despite unity dilemma

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have agreed to shun a Palestinian unity government unless it meets international conditions, an official in Olmert’s office said on Saturday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch at Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 17, 2007. REUTERS/Loay Abu Haykel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas was “the best we could get”.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Jerusalem after a surprise trip to Baghdad, told reporters a decision had not yet been made on how to deal with a unity government.

She is due to meet Olmert and Abbas on Monday in Jerusalem to try to revive stalled peace talks.

But the Israelis said the meeting would focus instead on disagreements over Abbas’s deal for a coalition of his Fatah movement with the militant Hamas group.

An official in Olmert’s office told Reuters the agreement with Bush over a joint position toward the Palestinian government was reached in a telephone conversation on Friday between the two leaders.

“We won’t recognize a unity government that doesn’t explicitly accept the conditions. This is the joint U.S.-Israeli position,” the official said, confirming Israeli television reports.

In the unity deal reached in Saudi Arabia this month, Hamas made no explicit commitment to recognize Israel, renounce violence or accept interim peace deals as demanded by Israel and the Quartet of Middle East mediators.

Abbas made clear he would not budge from the deal.

“This agreement was the best we could get. We cannot change it. You either take it or leave it,” a Palestinian official said of Abbas’s message to Assistant U.S. Secretary of State David Welch in preparatory talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Rice said that despite problems surrounding the unity government, it was an important time for both sides to meet.

“If one waited for the perfect time to come to the Middle East then one would never get on the airplane,” Rice said at a joint appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni made clear Israel did not believe the deal between Hamas and Abbas was satisfactory.

“Unfortunately, before the formation of the future Palestinian government, the understandings do not meet the requirements of the international community,” Livni said before the two met for dinner.

Rice will hold separate talks with Abbas and Olmert on Sunday ahead of the three-way summit on Monday.

A “QUIET CHANNEL”

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said the Palestinians hoped to convince the United States “that this is the only possible agreement, that the government must be given a chance”.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Palestinians hoped the three-way summit would “launch a quiet channel, as President Abbas has requested, to explore how to get to our objective of a Palestinian state”.

A letter from Abbas reappointing Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as prime minister contains a vague call to Hamas to “abide” by Palestinian and Arab resolutions that include recognition of Israel, and to “respect” past agreements and international law.

Haniyeh said on Friday he hoped to form the government with Abbas’s Fatah faction within three weeks.

Haniyeh launched coalition talks on Saturday with members of two militant factions, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The United States has struggled to maintain a united front within the Quartet, which also includes the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Even if some Arab and European countries resume aid after a year-long embargo of the Hamas government, Western diplomats said the impact would be limited.

Without U.S. support, regional and international banks will be reluctant to resume transfers to the Palestinian government, Palestinian bank executives said.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Wafa Amr in Ramallah

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