UNITED NATIONS—The United States and its European partners said Wednesday that they fully backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to form a national unity government with the ruling Hamas party, which Washington considers a terrorist group.
In a carefully worded statement after a meeting here, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues said they backed Abbas' negotiations with Hamas "in the hope that the platform of such a government" would allow a resumption of peace talks with Israel.
U.N. diplomats and European officials said the statement amounted to an easing of the Bush administration's conditions for dealing with Hamas.
Those conditions are that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and live up to past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.
Rice, speaking to reporters later, said there was no change in U.S. policy.
"It only goes without saying that you cannot have peace if you do not recognize the right of the other partner to exist and that the renunciation of violence is a key to negotiations," Rice said.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was also considerable friction between Rice and the Europeans over Europe's push to ease the international boycott on the Hamas-led government. The aid cutoff has dramatically worsened conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
President Bush in recent days has signaled that he is eager to see progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reaching out to the Muslim world in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Bush forcefully reiterated his backing for an independent Palestinian state.
Last weekend a top Rice aide, Philip Zelikow, acknowledged what many outside the Bush administration have long said: Progress on the Arab-Israeli dispute is needed if the United States is going to get cooperation from moderate Arab states on other important issues.
The Bush administration has argued that spreading democracy is the central issue in the Middle East. Arab moderates and Europeans argue that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fundamental to the region's other problems and that progress on resolving it must come first.
"We can rail against that belief; we can find it completely (un)justifiable, but it's fact. That means an active policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute is an essential ingredient to forging a coalition that deals with the most dangerous problems," Zelikow said at a policy conference on Sunday, according to a transcript by the organizer, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Zelikow's remarks broke new ground for the Bush administration and immediately alarmed Jewish-American groups, who fear the White House might pressure Israel to make compromises. Bush has been staunchly supportive of Israel.
The president met Wednesday morning with Abbas and reiterated his hopes for a Palestinian state.
"I fully understand that in order to achieve this vision, there must be leaders willing to speak out and act on behalf of people who yearn for peace, and you are such a leader," he told Abbas.
Abbas has been trying to reach a pact with Hamas, which defeated his Fatah faction in January's parliamentary elections.
The diplomatic "Quartet"—the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States—announced several modest steps to ease conditions in the Palestinian areas.
They agreed to expand a temporary mechanism that funds health care and other aid to Palestinians, while circumventing the Hamas-led government. And they urged Israel to transfer roughly $500 million in tax and custom revenues to Abbas' Palestinian Authority. Israel refuses to give the funds to a government that includes Hamas.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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