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Decisions Deferred in Mideast Talks

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: February 19, 2007

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U.S. and Israeli officials agreed after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to wait and see if a new Palestinian unity government being formed between rival Fatah and Hamas factions will meet international standards for recognition, including recognition of Israel's right to exist. Hamas has repeatedly said it would not recognize Israel, but Rice chose to keep her options open. "I haven't seen anything to date that suggests that this is a government that's going to meet the Quartet's principles, but you know...we will see once the government is formed," she told reporters.

After months of internal violence verging at times on civil war, news that Saudi mediation had brought Hamas and Fatah close to declaring a unity Palestinian government (BBC) presents an opening of sorts. Yet Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, appears unwilling to bend on the prerequisites for international recognition set out by the "Quartet"—the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—attempting to get Israeli-Palestinian talks restarted. Rice met separately Sunday with Abbas (Reuters), apparently taking advantage of the period before the Fatah-Hamas deal officially produces a government. The three-way Rice-Olmert-Abbas summit on Monday led to a commitment to meet again soon, but little else was released publicly (BBC).

Former ambassador Martin S. Indyk, in an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, praised the talks, which "are qualitatively different from anything that she or the Bush administration has done before." But Washington's decision to take a strict view of the Quartet's standards dismayed other Middle East observers. Dennis Ross, who led Middle East diplomatic efforts for presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says Rice needs to concentrate at this point on what's possible (WashPost), not on what's ideal. Ross' former deputy, Robert Malley, tells Gwertzman a Palestinian unity government offers the only way forward right now. Steven Cook, a Mideast expert and CFR fellow, adds that the American plight in Iraq has become tangled with the failure of Washington to get Israeli-Palestinian talks back on track.

Israeli and American officials insist Abbas has only himself to blame if, in joining arms with Hamas, he fails to bring the militant movement across the well-known frontiers of international acceptability. U.S. and Israeli officials agree "Abbas snubbed his nose" at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and at the United States, "by agreeing to a national unity government that does not recognize Israel, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, or forswear terrorism," writes the hawkish Jerusalem Post. Olmert made his own preconditions for talks clear in a speech late last year.

Other Quartet members may yet try to salvage the Palestinian deal. The EU is standing by its previous demands (Deutsche Welle), though Russia has said the sanctions slapped on the Palestinians (Ria Novosti) when Hamas took power should be lifted if the unity government survives. "What really matters is how Hamas acts," says a New York Times editorial. "The most important action would be a credible effort by the joint Hamas and Fatah government to detect and thwart terrorist attacks against Israel."

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