RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought explanations on Sunday from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about a unity government that Israel said it had agreed with Washington to shun.
Pledging to continue to “probe the diplomatic horizon”, Rice travelled to the occupied West Bank to meet the moderate Palestinian leader just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said prospects for peace had dimmed.
Rice, Olmert and Abbas are all due to meet in Jerusalem on Monday, but no joint news conference is planned — a sign that expectations are low.
“I hope that this meeting with the three of us will be an opportunity to understand the current situation and commit and recommit to existing peace agreements,” Rice told reporters, with Abbas seated at her side.
She and Abbas met for 2-1/2 hours and made no comments to reporters after their talks in the city of Ramallah.
The deal Hamas leaders reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, this month with Abbas’s Fatah group ended weeks of internal fighting that killed more than 90 Palestinians, but Western officials say it fell short of meeting the Quartet’s policy terms.
Olmert told his cabinet that U.S. President George W. Bush had agreed in a telephone call on Friday to boycott Abbas’s planned unity government with the Islamist Hamas group if international demands on its policy towards Israel were not met.
“A Palestinian government that does not accept the Quartet’s conditions cannot receive recognition, and there will not be cooperation with it,” Olmert, due to see Rice later in the day, said in broadcast comments.
The Quartet of international mediators, comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, have insisted that any Palestinian government must recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace accords.
“HORIZON FOR PEACE”
Palestinians had hoped the power-sharing pact, which contained a vague promise to “respect” previous peace deals, could persuade Western donors to restore direct aid cut off to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won election a year ago.
At the start of her talks with Abbas, Rice said she looked forward to hearing more from him on the unity arrangement. Abbas said he and Rice would discuss the Mecca agreement and explore “the horizon for the peace process” at Monday’s talks.
Earlier, in talks with Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, Rice was asked whether there was agreement to boycott a unity government. She did not respond, although she said on Saturday such a decision had not yet been made.
Senior Palestinian officials said Abbas had replied angrily to a warning by a senior U.S. official on Saturday that Washington would shun unity government ministers, including Fatah members, if the Quartet’s terms were not met.
“President Abbas … shouted, saying: ‘You are placing pressure on me. I have internal pressure — the pressure is unbearable. The only alternative to this agreement is civil war’,” one Palestinian official said.
While pledging to maintain contacts with Abbas, U.S. officials are becoming impatient with the Palestinian president, whose staff said he would not budge from the Mecca deal.
Roni Bar-On, an Israeli cabinet minister close to Olmert, said Israel “would not boycott” Abbas because it needed to keep a channel of communications open with the Palestinians and snubbing him would “definitely thrust him towards Hamas”.