Rice: PA Coalition Government Must Meet Quartet’s Demands

By Avi Issacharoff

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met Saturday evening with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem ahead of a trilateral summit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas scheduled for Monday.

Rice said she will look into all available political options on dealing with the coalition government of Fatah and Hamas, despite the fact that it apparently does not accept the demands placed on it by the Quartet of international peacemakers.

Rice told journalists at the beginning of the meeting that the Quartet is reemphasizing the importance of the basic principles: recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror and abiding by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Livni said on Saturday a unity government deal between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas did not satisfy the demands of the international community.

The so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers includes the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

Livni’s comments marked a hardening of Israel’s public response to the deal. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier this week that Israel "neither rejects nor accepts the agreements."

"Unfortunately, before the formation of the future Palestinian government, the understandings do not meet the requirements of the international community," Livni said with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her side.

Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad earlier Saturday to meet with a number of Iraqi officials.

"It is crucial to understand that Israel, with the international community, expects any Palestinian government to meet these requirements fully and completely," Livni added.

Rice reiterated that she would not judge the new Palestinian government until it has been established, but acknowledged that the coalition talks are overshadowing Monday’s summit.

"We are between the announcement of the intention to form a government and the actual formation of that government," Rice said, noting that the Quartet has reaffirmed its principles.

"I have said if there was a perfect time to come to the Middle East, you wouldn’t get on an air plane, and so despite the complications it’s an important time to have these discussions … about the principles of two states for two peoples," she said.

A political source in Jerusalem said earlier Saturday that Olmert and U.S. President George W. Bush "see eye to eye on the need of any future Palestinian government to meet the demands of the Quartet" of Middle East peacemakers, following a telephone conversation between the two leaders Friday.

Olmert and Bush also discussed the Mecca agreement to form a Palestinian unity government of Hamas and Fatah and the issue of Iran’s nuclear development.

Earlier, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas delivered a defiant message to a senior U.S. envoy, saying that the world would have to learn to live with a new coalition between his Fatah movement and the Islamic militant Hamas, an alliance which has raised concerns in Washington.

U.S. officials have told Abbas they would shun any Palestinian government that does not explicitly recognize Israel, according to Abbas aides. The platform of a Hamas-Fatah government agreed at a meeting in Mecca last week only contains a vague promise to respect previous peace deals with Israel, at best implying recognition.

Abbas told senior State Department official David Welch that the Mecca agreement was the only possible agreement and the world must deal with it, Abba aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, after the meeting in Ramallah with Welch.

"In the three-way meeting with Olmert and Rice, President Abbas is going to say that this government should be given a chance," Abu Rudeideneh said.

A Palestinian official present at Saturday’s meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Welch had assured Abbas that the U.S. would decide its position only when the new coalition takes office.

Palestinian negotiatior Saeb Erekat, however, said Welch reiterated Washington’s insistence that the new coalition accept the conditions laid out by the Quartet.

"We are going to judge this government according to its commitment to the
Quartet conditions," Erekat quoted the American envoy saying.

On Friday, Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying "Israel and the Palestinians are likely to agree to restart peace talks during the trilateral summit scheduled for Monday."

"We expect this meeting will yield agreements about restarting talks on a definite framework for a conclusive resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," RIA quoted Lavrov as telling Russian journalists.

Also on Friday, United States President George W. Bush spoke with Saudi and Israeli leaders about an agreement by rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government, the White House said.

Bush discussed Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian developments with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where the Palestinian groups struck the deal aimed at ending factional warfare in Gaza and easing an economic embargo on the Palestinian Authority.

He spoke with Olmert about "recent developments in Palestinian political affairs" and Iran, White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Bush and Olmert also discussed coming meetings between Rice, Olmert and Abbas scheduled for Monday in Jerusalem.

On Thursday, Rice reaffirmed U.S. support for Abbas, even as she said his plan to govern alongside Hamas militants complicates U.S. peacemaking efforts.

Rice suggested Thursday that the Bush administration has strong reservations about Abbas’ planned union with Hamas, but she would not confirm that U.S. diplomats have warned Abbas that Washington would shun the new government.

Rice said she will reserve judgment until the coalition government is formed and its policies clear. She said she has seen no evidence yet that the government intends to meet the Quartet’s demands.

When Rice spoke to newspaper reporters, ahead of her Middle East tour, it was the first time she had addressed the deal brokered last week in Saudi Arabia without U.S. help.

In an interview on Palestinian TV late Thursday, Abbas said the international boycott would not be lifted right away, but "we will fight and struggle, and we hope this can be accomplished soon, though there are still obstacles."

On Thursday, Palestinian officials and diplomats said Washington will boycott all Palestinian unity government ministers, including non-Hamas members, unless international demands on policy towards Israel are met.

The Hamas-led government resigned Thursday, paving the way for Abbas to officially ask Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to form the new coalition.

Some U.S. officials had been advocating a shift in Washington’s position that would allow limited diplomatic contacts with cabinet ministers from Abbas’ Fatah faction and other parties.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. would not make judgments about the government before it is formed and before it has an official platform. The U.S. administration also will watch the government’s actions once it takes office, he said.

But a senior Palestinian official said: "The Americans have informed us that they will be boycotting the new government headed by Hamas. The Fatah and independent ministers will be treated the same way that Hamas ministers are treated."

Jacob Walles, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, then delivered the same message to Abbas in person Thursday, the aides said.

The aides said the U.S. officials indicated that all members of the future unity government, including independents and those belonging to Fatah, would be shunned. The U.S. government would still maintain ties with Abbas and his office, the aides added.

A meeting held earlier this week between Israelis and Palestinians to prepare for Monday’s trilateral summit faltered over whether the agenda should include discussions on a final status agreement.

Olmert’s bureau chief Yoram Turbowicz and political advisor Shalom Turjeman met Monday with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas’ chief of staff, Rafik al-Husseini, but were unable to resolve their differences.

The Palestinian representatives at the meeting reiterated their demand that the summit address permanent settlement issues, but the Israeli representatives rejected the topic as out of hand.

Abbas held a phone conversation Wednesday with a top U.S. government official who said that the U.S. would cooperate with the unity government only if the government accepts the conditions set forth by the Quartet.

The official reiterated prior statements conveyed to Erekat and PLO working committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo during their recent visit to Washington, the Abbas must bring about a change in Hamas’ attitude. Haniyeh has already announced that the new government will not recognize Israel.

During their meeting in Amman earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin also told Abbas that despite Russian statements supporting the Mecca agreement over a unity government, Moscow would only cooperate with the new government if it accepts the Quartet’s demands.

(Haaretz and agencies)

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