Abbas Not 'Relevant,' Israeli Official Says

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 27, 2006

JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 -- Israel's acting foreign minister said Sunday that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "is no longer relevant" following Hamas's recent parliamentary victory, putting Israel at odds with the Bush administration and the European Union over how to continue supporting the Palestinian government.

Tzipi Livni, who officials expect to keep her post after Israel's general election next month, told an Israeli radio station that "it will be a mistake to take comfort in the arms of Abu Mazen as the sole legitimate figure," referring to Abbas by his nickname.

"The ball is in the Palestinian court now, and the future Hamas government has to do something with it, and Abu Mazen, in this context, is no longer relevant," Livni said.

Livni's comments appeared to conflict with recent statements by senior U.S. diplomats, who have expressed strong support for Abbas as Hamas assembles the next cabinet. After meeting Saturday with Abbas in the West Bank, C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the Bush administration supported "his leadership at this critical time facing the Palestinian people."

Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, important donors to the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority. But U.S. and European diplomats have signaled that they might continue providing aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas installs its cabinet next month by channeling the money to Abbas, who has called on the radical Islamic movement to pursue a negotiated peace with Israel.

As president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas maintains broad powers over the security forces, peace policy and diplomacy. Abbas also has the power to fire the prime minister and disband the cabinet.

"These comments are totally unacceptable," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a legislator from Abbas's secular Fatah party. "Israel's policy of declaring that there is no partner for peace has only led to an escalation of the conflict. This is what they are doing once again."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now in a coma after his stroke last month, had called Abbas's predecessor, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, "irrelevant" before ceasing contact with him.

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