Israel Rejects Talks With Palestinian Unity Government Until It Recognizes Jewish State's Right to Exist

Israel on Tuesday ruled out holding Mideast peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas once he forms a coalition with Hamas militants, saying the new unity government must give in to international demands to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Hoping to find a way to persuade Hamas to moderate its hardline position, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Arab security chiefs in Jordan and asked for their advice how to proceed, Arab officials said.

The unity government deal between Hamas and Abbas' more moderate Fatah Party fell far short of the conditions set for restoring desperately needed foreign aid to the Palestinians, according to Israel and the United States. Discussion of the government overshadowed talks Monday between Rice, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that were initially billed as the beginning of a new peace push.

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Rice and Abbas met separately in Amman Tuesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II, and Abbas said after the meeting that the summit Monday had been "tense and difficult" but said "it was not a failure, and it will be followed by other meetings."

Abbas planned to fly to Germany, Britain and France on a campaign to convince European leaders — who the Palestinians hope are wavering on the economic boycott — that the unity deal was a major victory that should be rewarded.

Abbas said Israel may have "misunderstood" the coalition deal, which "was made to protect the unity of the Palestinian people and its national interests," according to Jordan's official Petra news agency.

But Israel remained adamant in its rejection.

"The agreements between Hamas and Abu Mazen disappoint all who supported separating the extremists from the moderates and creating an alternative government in the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Tuesday, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman, ruled out holding any talks on a final peace deal with Abbas if he formed a new Cabinet that included Hamas.

Israel would continue to deal with Abbas, but only on matters such as improving living conditions for the Palestinians and ending Palestinian attacks against Israel. "We're not talking about negotiations on final status issues," Eisin said.

Sunni Arab states — many of them U.S. allies — were also disappointed at the Palestinian unity deal.

Rice invited security and intelligence chiefs from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to Amman to ask their advice on what, if anything, more could be done to persuade Hamas to back down.

Tuesday's session at the government security headquarters in Amman included some of the region's wiliest and best-connected heavies, fixers and go-betweens, including Saudi national security adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman has deep ties across Palestinian politics, including with Hamas. Rice has been meeting with him regularly since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections 13 months ago.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates have all, in turn, tried to convince Hamas to meet the Western conditions with little success.

Abdullah and other Sunni Arab allies have strongly urged the Bush administration to energize peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, partly to improve the Palestinians' lot, partly to tamp down Islamic extremism that those government see as a threat and partly to counter the influence of Shiite Iran.

After his separate meetings with Rice and Abbas for their impressions of the summit, Abdullah appealed to Rice to continue trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

"The longer the time passes without a framework that would help Palestinians and Israelis move forward, the greater the risk of an escalation of tensions," he said in a statement.

Israel, the U.S. and the European Union label Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction and has killed hundreds of people in suicide attacks, a terror group.

The U.S. and European Union insist that any Palestinian government must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace accords. Hamas has rejected those conditions. The unity accord pledges only to "respect" past agreements.

At stake is about US$1 billion in foreign aid for the Palestinian government cut off after Hamas defeated Abbas' secular Fatah party and took power last year. Abbas was elected separately and retains power, but the unwieldy two-headed government structure has been unable to deliver services or security.

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