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Hopes restrained for Middle East peace initiative

JERUSALEM—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Friday for the Middle East to launch a long-awaited U.S. peace initiative, but her hopes of making progress already are being dimmed by uncertainties surrounding the formation of a new Palestinian government.

"I'll be very candid. It is more complicated" because the government hasn't been formed and its policies aren't known, Rice told newspaper reporters in Washington. Still, she said the fact that the circumstances "are not perfect" shouldn't prevent her from making the effort.

Palestinian leaders moved Thursday toward establishing a unity government that will include ministers from Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist group, and the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh officially resigned as head of the 11-month-old Cabinet, and under a deal worked out in Mecca last week, Abbas immediately asked him to form a new government with Fatah and smaller parties.

While details remain to be worked out, there's no sign that the new government will accept international demands to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Rice said the United States will hold off on making a "yes or no" judgment until the government is formed. But she repeated that the Bush administration will deal only with Palestinians who meet the international demands.

"We have not yet seen any evidence that this one will," she said.

Israel has taken a similar stance.

While in the region, Rice plans to convene a three-way meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the outlines of an eventual Palestinian state.

The larger question facing the United States and Israel is how to deal with their ally Abbas, who lost control of the Palestinian government in last year's elections, which propelled the hard-line Hamas into power. Abbas' pact with Hamas has increased suspicion of him in Israel, even though he retains strong support in Washington.

Over the past year, Israel, the United States and the international community have severed most political, military and economic ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Despite the debilitating isolation, Hamas leaders have refused to abandon their pledge to destroy Israel and establish a new Islamic nation.

In response, Israel and the United States have sought to strengthen Abbas, who vowed not to join a coalition with Hamas unless it accepted the international demands.

Abbas backed away from that stand last week in Mecca after weeks of increasingly volatile street clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen.

Rice said the Bush administration will continue to back Abbas, whom she described as a force for peace.

On Thursday, Olmert said he still intends to work with Abbas—for now.

"I am against cutting off ties with Abu Mazen," Olmert told reporters traveling with him in Turkey, using Abbas' informal name. "I don't see anything to deter a meeting with Abu Mazen."

Privately, however, some Israeli leaders are suggesting that they may rethink their view if the new coalition government rejects the international demands.

"Abu Mazen so far was in the camp of peace in opposition to Hamas," said one Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the upcoming talks. "The fact that he has now possibly signed on with Hamas, and the possibility that he has signed on with an unreformed Hamas, that places new issues on the agenda that weren't there before."

Hanan Ashrawi, an independent Palestinian lawmaker, said it would be a mistake for Israel to back away from working with Abbas once the new government is formed.

"They need to understand that there are serious efforts being made, and if you keep disregarding your partners and saying you don't have a partner, then you will never get anywhere," Ashrawi said.

The talks need to produce some tangible results, she added.

"If this becomes another photo opportunity or symbolic meeting, then it will backfire because expectations will be raised and the letdown will be enormous," said Ashrawi. "Violence is under the surface. There is a degree of frustration, despair and even a settling of scores, and unless we deal with all of these issues, violence could erupt at any moment."

Expectations aren't high. Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman, referred to the upcoming talks as "pre-negotiations" needed to prepare the way for more substantive meetings.

"There are no negotiations on Monday," she said. "You don't resolve all the issues over the last 40, 60 or 120 years in one meeting with Condoleezza Rice."

Because Israel isn't prepared to immediately address the most complicated issues, some expect the talks to falter quickly.

"I don't see anything concrete coming out of it," said Zalman Shoval, Israel's former ambassador to the United States. "It looks like several dead ends on this road."

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(Strobel reported from Washington.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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