Palestinians Tout Unity Deal to World

The Palestinians have begun a diplomatic blitz aimed at persuading reticent leaders in the U.S. and Europe to accept their new power-sharing deal and lift painful economic sanctions, officials said Saturday.

Palestinian representatives already have spoken to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Next week, they turn their efforts to European leaders, beginning with Germany.

"We are trying to market the agreement and get international support for it," Nabil Amr, a top aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Associated Press.

Western governments and Israel have only given muted reactions to Thursday's agreement between Abbas' Fatah faction and the Islamic militant group Hamas — dashing Palestinian hopes that the deal would lead to a quick end to the sanctions.

International leaders said they want to study the deal further and see whether it changes the situation on the ground.

The Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union — had demanded that the militant Hamas group, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept past peace deals.

The deal, negotiated in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, says only that the new government pledges to "respect" the previous deals. It makes no reference to recognizing Israel or renouncing violence and appears to fall short of the Quartet's demands.

Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader who pushed for a deal for months, is hoping that personal diplomacy with every member of the Quartet will help end the embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas' election last year.

The embargo has frozen roughly $1 billion in annual foreign aid and about $500 million in tax revenues Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians, crippling the Palestinian government.

Amr said he would head this week to Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and then travel to Belgium to meet with Javier Solana, the EU's chief foreign policy envoy. "We urge the officials in Europe to exert efforts to lift the siege imposed on the government," he said.

Abbas, meanwhile, plans meetings with the pro-Western leaders of Egypt and Jordan. He also plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Amman, Jordan on Tuesday.

"There will be contacts with other countries to clarify the program," said Nimr Hamad, another Abbas adviser. He said was optimistic that European leaders would accept the government program.

The new Palestinian government program could put Western leaders in a difficult position.

While apparently falling short of Quartet demands, it goes a long way toward ending months of Palestinian infighting that has killed more than 130 people, and the international community might be reluctant to take any steps that could renew tensions.

Hamas also appears to be giving Abbas approval to pursue peace talks with Israel. Abbas is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Rice on Feb. 19.

Abbas' aide Abed Rabbo said Rice told him she was skeptical that Hamas would abide by the deal, but she would reserve judgment until it was implemented.

America wants the new government to stop Gaza militants from launching rockets at Israel, prevent other attacks and respect previously signed agreements, he said. Accepting past peace deals has been perceived as implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist.

"The Americans are worried that Hamas will not succeed in this test," he said.

Ahmed Youssef, a top aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, was noncommittal when asked whether the group would recognize Israel. "The declaration of Mecca did not mention anything about recognition of Israel," he said.

Israel planned to give an official response to the Palestinian program at its weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres said in an interview with the German weekly focus that "we will study the agreement and then judge it." But in the comments published Saturday, he said Hamas must recognize Israel if it wants negotiations.

Hamas, listed as a terror group by Israel, the United States and the EU, is responsible for scores of deadly suicide bombings in Israel.

Previous efforts to form a national unity government have foundered, though none has ever come this far. Still, there were fears that the new deal could unravel in coming weeks as the two sides choose ministers.