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Move Seen Complicating Rice's Middle East Effort

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

The completion of a Palestinian unity government yesterday that includes ministers from the radical Islamic group Hamas will further complicate Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to rekindle peace efforts in the region.

Already, the prospect of the government has driven a wedge between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the two interlocutors on whom Rice had rested her hopes for progress. Middle East analysts said the new government has also hardened Israeli skepticism about Arab commitment to a peace process -- particularly Saudi Arabia's role -- and exposed fissures between the United States and Europe on how to deal with respected Palestinian officials who decided to join the new government. Signs of tensions are also emerging between the United States and Israel about how fast to push the process.

The United States and Israel have sought to thwart creation of a Palestinian unity government, but U.S. officials are withholding public judgment about the new government until the Palestinian parliament ratifies it tomorrow. But they privately acknowledge that Abbas's announcement last month that he had struck a deal with Hamas was a blow to U.S. and Israeli efforts to elevate Abbas as an alternative to Hamas.

"Abbas promised us several times he would not agree to a national unity government," a senior Israeli diplomat said this week. "But then he sold the store to Hamas. He left us flabbergasted and without a strategy."

Yet U.S. officials say Rice remains determined to try to make headway on the Israeli-Palestinian issue after six years of stagnation.

Before the unity government was formed, Rice had hoped to foster a conversation between Abbas and Olmert on a "political horizon" -- the contours of a Palestinian state. After Abbas, leader of the Fatah faction, struck his deal with Hamas, Rice considered it a victory when she simply persuaded Olmert last month to continue meeting with Abbas.

Israeli officials have rejected any dealings with the new government, saying even the respected figures it contains are shills for terrorists. France and other European nations have indicated they would meet with officials such as the new foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, or the finance minister-designate, Salam Fayyad, who have international reputations. U.S. officials appear unlikely to go that far, though there have been hints they would continue to meet with someone like Fayyad as long as it was not in his official capacity.

Palestinians say the United States should take this opportunity to correct a policy of isolation against their government. "Neither Hamas nor Fatah alone in power can deliver on Palestinian and international demands for reform and a peace agreement," Samar Assad, executive director of the Palestine Center, wrote in an analysis yesterday.

Rice is expected to return this month to Israel and the Palestinian territories, marking her fifth visit in five months, in part to encourage the Arab League to reaffirm a peace offer issued five years ago. Under the plan, Arab nations would recognize Israel if the Jewish state gave up land seized after the 1967 war.

Israeli officials in recent days have praised what they call the "Saudi Initiative," an earlier version of the peace offer that does not include elements in the Arab League plan to which Israelis object. Rice would like to build on the prospect of Arab recognition of Israel, in effect having the Arabs offer a "political horizon" for Israel that would mirror the "political horizon" Rice is trying to construct for the Palestinians.

As one part of that plan, U.S. officials have encouraged Arab nations to make a gesture to Israel after reaffirming the initiative, such as sending envoys to Jerusalem to explain the plan, diplomats said.

Martin Indyk, a former Clinton administration official who is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the administration clearly preferred a distinction between Abbas and Hamas rather than yesterday's muddied diplomatic waters. "Their preferred policy is either to ignore it or to do their best to undermine it," he said, referring to the government. But he said it was noteworthy that Rice had not given up.

"It's tough, very tough," Indyk said. "But give her full credit for trying."

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