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Palestinian Power-Sharing Deal Complicates Rice's Mideast Trip

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the formation of a Palestinian unity government that includes the Hamas militant group complicates her high-profile peace mission this weekend, strongly suggesting that the new government falls short of standards that would allow a resumption of international aid.

"Our position toward the Hamas government was very clear: It did not meet the international test," Rice told a group of newspaper reporters on the eve of her departure. "I have to say that we have not yet seen any evidence that this one will."

Rice added, "I don't deny that it's more complicated" now and that before the announcement of the unity government "it was clear, more black and white."

With prodding by Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week reached a deal with his Hamas rivals that would bring Abbas's Fatah party into the government. Yesterday, Abbas formally asked Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, to assemble the next cabinet.

Abbas's move has placed the United States in a quandary because, under Rice's formulation, he is a "mainstream" leader, while Hamas is an "extremist" group that needs to be isolated. The Bush administration has pushed a plan to bolster security forces loyal to Abbas in part because Hamas's security forces have gained strength, but at the same time the administration has said it wants an end to violence between Hamas and Fatah that has left scores dead. The unity accord is intended to end street battles between the factions.

After a weekend of meeting separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials, Rice intends to bring together Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday for a lengthy series of talks on the contours of a Palestinian state -- what she calls "the political horizon." She will then travel to Amman, Jordan, for meetings with Arab officials before flying to Berlin. There, she will meet with the other members of the "Quartet" -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations-- which monitors Middle East peace and sets the conditions on aid to the Palestinians.

Rice's hope is that the "political horizon" will provide a vision for a Palestinian state that will inspire the Palestinians, strengthen Abbas and reduce the influence of anti-Israeli militants such as Hamas. The Palestinian people need to "know what is at stake for them in the future," Rice said. "Without a political horizon, it is going to be difficult to show why this course, the course of Abu Mazen, is better than other courses." Abu Mazen is Abbas's nickname.

Rice also hopes to prod Arab governments to begin the process of recognizing Israel as progress is made with the Palestinians -- a way of strengthening Olmert, who suffers from low public approval ratings. The "political horizon has to include them, and it has to include a relationship between them and Israel," Rice said, referring to Arab states.

Few details of the Palestinian unity agreement have been released, except a vague statement in which Abbas called upon Hamas to "respect international resolutions," which appeared to fall far short of international demands that the new government pledge to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. Hamas officials later told reporters that the movement has no intention of ever recognizing Israel.

Abbas aides hoped the unity accord would end the international boycott, but U.S. officials have made it clear in recent days that they will not deal with the new government as long as it does not meet the three conditions. Israeli officials have been very critical of Abbas's decision, saying it sets back the chances of reaching a peace agreement.

In the interview, Rice repeatedly defended Abbas, calling him "someone who has devoted his whole life to nonviolence," and said that no matter what happens with the unity government, the United States will continue to work with him because he has accepted the conditions. "It would be a very big mistake to not continue to deal with him," she said.

Rice said she is traveling to the region because "it is important to inject energy and confidence" in the dealings between Olmert and Abbas. Despite the uncertainty over the new government, "in the Middle East, if you wait for the perfect circumstances, I think you would probably never take the airplane," Rice said. "I am not going to let the fact that the circumstances are not perfect at this particular point in time delay what I think is extremely important work to be done."

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