Israel Rebuffs Palestinian Unity Government

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 19, 2007

JERUSALEM, March 18 -- The Israeli cabinet voted Sunday to limit future talks with even moderate Palestinian officials to shared security and humanitarian concerns, ruling out a formal peace process until the new Palestinian government recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

In officially rejecting the Palestinian unity government that was sworn in over the weekend, the cabinet also stated that "Israel expects the international community to maintain the policy it has taken over the past year of isolating the Palestinian government."

The vote was unanimous, with two cabinet members from the Labor Party, including the only Arab minister, abstaining.

"This is a government that does not accept the conditions of the international community and sees terror as a legitimate goal," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

The new Palestinian cabinet includes rival political parties and has pledged to respect previous agreements that recognize Israel, unlike the previous cabinet in office since the radical Islamic movement Hamas took control of the government nearly a year ago.

But it continues to be led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and its political program falls short of renouncing violence and explicitly recognizing Israel, the conditions for resumption of foreign aid.

Most international donors cut off economic assistance after Palestinian voters chose Hamas to run the Palestinian Authority in January 2006 parliamentary elections. Unemployment and poverty have increased in the territories since then, and about 130 Palestinians have been killed over the past year in a violent power struggle between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader, chose to join the Hamas-led government in a bid to end the partisan violence. But his decision and Israel's rejection of the new government have complicated the Bush administration's efforts to restart peace talks, moribund since January 2001.

Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate here, said Haniyeh's speech Saturday, in which he endorsed "resistance in all its forms" to the Israeli occupation, was "very disappointing."

"It was a real opportunity for him to demonstrate that he is a partner for peace, and he missed it," she said.

Schweitzer-Bluhm said the Bush administration will continue to boycott members of Hamas, which it classifies as a terrorist organization, but will talk with Abbas, who has urged Hamas leaders to meet the international demands.

She said U.S. officials would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to work with cabinet members from outside the two main parties, including the new foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, who holds a doctorate in comparative politics from Georgetown University.

In an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday, Abu Amr urged Israel to end the economic sanctions against the Palestinian government, calling its demand for explicit recognition a matter of semantics.

Israel's cabinet voted to continue withholding the tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The monthly revenue of roughly $55 million amounts to nearly half of the Palestinian government's payroll.

The new Palestinian government program gives Abbas the authority, as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to conduct peace talks with Israel. The PLO, which has negotiated and signed all previous accords with Israel, does not include Hamas as a member.

Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker and the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the Israeli decision "greatly disappointing" after Abbas called Saturday for immediate peace talks.

"Negotiations are the PLO's jurisdiction and have nothing to do with the government," Erekat said. "What Olmert is doing is beyond my comprehension."

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