Bid to end Hamas government hits ‘dead end’
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday that his struggle to replace the Hamas-led government with a more moderate coalition had reached a “dead end,” complicating the goal of renewed peace talks with Israel.
Visibly upset, Abbas delivered the news during Rice’s visit to the West Bank and Israel, a trip aimed at encouraging dialogue between the two sides and building on the momentum of their 4-day-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.
With Arab allies prodding the Bush administration to intervene in the conflict, Rice’s meetings with Abbas here and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem produced no immediate breakthrough.
“Hopefully, we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts and intensify our efforts toward the two-state solution that we all desire,” Rice said, standing beside Abbas at a news conference and endorsing his goal of an independent Palestinian state.
Rice praised both leaders, calling Abbas’ initiative to bring about the truce extraordinary. Later, she lauded Olmert’s offer of peace talks and his restraint in response to scattered Palestinian cease-fire violations.
The truce is “quite fragile,” Rice said, “but we would like to see it consolidated and then extended” to the West Bank.
Rice met separately with the two leaders after Olmert, according to Israeli newspapers, rejected a proposed joint meeting with Abbas and President Bush, who is visiting Jordan.
In a speech Monday, Olmert offered to open negotiations with Abbas, but only if Hamas freed a captured Israeli soldier and gave way to a new Palestinian government that recognized Israel and renounced violence.
Abbas’ announcement of a deadlock over the government came as an Egyptian mediator reported progress toward a deal to exchange the soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas, the Fatah Party leader, retained the presidency after Hamas came to power in elections this year.
For months he has been pressing the militant Islamic movement to step aside in favor of a broadly representative unity government made up mostly of nonpartisan technocrats acceptable to the West, which has cut off aid to the Hamas-led government.
Until this week, Abbas had sounded hopeful of pulling off such a move, which he expected would prompt the United States and European countries to drop the economic sanctions that have left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay its 165,000 employees.
But talks on a unity government broke down over what Abbas’ aides considered an excessive demand: to allow Hamas to retain the interior and finance ministries, which control the security forces and the treasury.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas left on a weeks-long tour of Arab states, delaying any new effort to reach a compromise.
Abbas’ despair was evident during his news conference with Rice.
“This is very painful for us because we know how much our people are suffering for the past eight or nine months,” he said. “I want a government that will end the siege against my people.... People must not feel frustration because their frustration leads to extremism, and extremism leads to known consequences.”
Abbas said he would summon leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads, to decide how to break the impasse. Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, predicted “unprecedented political steps.”
The president could dissolve the government or call a referendum on whether to hold new elections. Both steps are risky. Hamas controls parliament and could veto any alternative government that Abbas put forward. And polls indicate Hamas remains popular enough to prevail in a new election.
Asked about Abbas’ options, Rice demurred.
“It is for President Abbas to decide what his options are,” she said. “He’s the elected president ... not me.”
Even if Olmert were to agree to meet with Abbas while Hamas controlled the government, the Palestinian president’s options on concessions would be limited.
Rice said the United States was “concerned about the condition of the Palestinian people” under the economic sanctions, but that Hamas’ control of the government precluded anything but humanitarian aid from the West.
On previous visits, Rice has urged Israel to ease its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip and within the West Bank. Without publicly criticizing the restrictions Thursday, Rice told Abbas that the United States would work with him and Israel to ease “the daily difficulties, the daily humiliations that are associated with the life of the Palestinian people.”
She reaffirmed U.S. support for a “viable and contiguous” Palestinian state, addressing Abbas’ complaint that “Palestinian land is being undermined and taken away day after day” by Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
“No actions that are being taken now,” Rice said, “should prejudge the outcome of a final status agreement.”