BERLIN, Feb. 21 -- European and U.S. officials on Wednesday sought to play down emerging differences over the new Palestinian unity government during a meeting of a high-level group that monitors efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The meeting of the Quartet -- made up of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States -- came as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas started a tour of Europe to promote the unity accord he had reached with the Hamas militant group. He met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and also planned to visit Paris, Berlin and Brussels.
U.S. officials say they were surprised that Abbas struck the deal, which angered Israeli officials and cast a pall over a summit that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered in Jerusalem this week between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
European officials have been much more receptive to the unity government, saying it might be a way to encourage Hamas to eventually accept a peace deal. European officials note that some possible members of the government are seasoned and respected Palestinians with no links to terrorism.
"I hope very much that the national unity government will be part of the solution and not part of the problem," the E.U. foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said at a news conference after the meeting.
In a statement laden with diplomatic code words, the Quartet welcomed Rice's efforts and reaffirmed that a Palestinian government must be committed to nonviolence, recognize Israel and honor previous agreements with Israel. But the group also said it was exploring an expansion of a European aid pipeline to the Palestinians.
In Israel, Olmert suggested to foreign journalists that Abbas, whose Fatah movement lost parliamentary elections to Hamas in January 2006, would not be able to enforce any agreement that emerged from peace talks with him. "A body which does not represent the majority today amongst the Palestinians will not be able to actually carry out any commitment that will make any such talks valuable or meaningful," Olmert said.
A day earlier, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said that future contacts with Abbas, if he allows Fatah to join the Hamas-led unity government, would be limited to discussion of conflict-management issues such as prisoners and checkpoints and roadblocks in the occupied territories.
U.S. officials, distributing transcripts of Olmert's news conference, sought to emphasize that elsewhere in his remarks, Olmert did not close the door to the peace efforts launched by Rice. They noted that Olmert said he was "absolutely loyal" to eventually creating a Palestinian state.
An Israeli official, asked to explain Olmert's remarks on condition of anonymity, said the Israelis would continue bilateral discussions on fighting terrorism and improving life for the Palestinians, while keeping the door open to contacts with Abbas.
U.S. officials originally hoped that Abbas would be able to use a possible peace deal to defeat Hamas in another election. But those hopes were dashed when Abbas, saying he needed to end intra-Palestinian violence that has left scores dead, reached an accommodation with Hamas.