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New Mideast initiative faces hurdles, low expectations

JERUSALEM—On the eve of a rare summit designed to inject new momentum into Middle East peace talks, Israeli and American officials made it clear Sunday that Palestinian hopes of establishing their own state will fall short unless their government formally embraces a two-state solution.

Renewed regional diplomatic efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been overshadowed by the decision by pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a coalition government with hard-line Hamas leaders who refuse to abandon their stated goal of destroying Israel.

While Rice said that the United States would continue to work with Abbas, those talks will only get so far until the Palestinian Authority accepts Israel as a neighbor.

"It simply can't be the case that a political horizon can be built on a basis where one of the parties doesn't accept the right of the other to exist," Rice told reporters after holding separate meetings with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The three leaders are planning to meet Monday in Jerusalem in an attempt to resuscitate negotiations that have been shelved since the start of the Palestinian uprising six years ago. But expectations remain low. Israeli leaders have consistently characterized the meeting as pre-negotiations that will focus on the process for restarting a peace process instead of substantial issues. And Rice described Monday's meeting as "informal talks" rather than negotiations.

"This is not something that I expect to move along very quickly," she said. "If you ask people to run at this point I think somebody's going to fall down and that's probably not a good thing."

Initially, Rice had hoped the meeting could mark the beginning of an effort to resurrect Bush administration efforts to broker a deal to end the conflict. But the plans were undermined earlier this month when Abbas and Hamas signed their deal in Mecca to form a coalition government.

Palestinian leaders hoped that the unity deal would be enough to end a yearlong international economic boycott that prevented the region's first Hamas-led Palestinian Authority from effectively running the government.

But Israel and the United States have made it clear that they will not work with the new coalition government until it meets international demands set forth by the so-called Quartet (the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union) that it explicitly recognize Israel and renounce violence as a political weapon.

"A Palestinian government that won't accept the Quartet conditions won't receive recognition and cooperation," Olmert said at the Israeli government's weekly Cabinet meeting before his talks with Rice. "The American and Israeli positions are totally identical on this issue."

At his meeting with Rice, Abbas urged the United States to give time to him and the unity government, which is expected to be officially established next month, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

"He wanted to be given a chance," said Erekat.

Though American and Israeli leaders view Abbas as a weak leader, they have been trying to strengthen the successor to Yasser Arafat by offering political and monetary support.

Even if the new government fails to meet the international demands, Rice and Israeli leaders said they would continue to work with Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, in hopes of diluting popular Palestinian support for Hamas.

"We are committed to working with Abu Mazen," said Rice.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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