Palestinian coalition talks fail as Rice arrives for visit
· Parties deadlocked over joint policy programme
· US secretary of state aims to kickstart peace process
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said yesterday that attempts to form a coalition government with the ruling Hamas movement had failed despite a mounting economic and security crisis.
A joint programme agreed between his Fatah movement and Hamas last month, which might have provided a way out, had collapsed. There was "no indication" that a coalition could be formed that would sign up to the required previous Palestinian commitments, he said.
Mr Abbas was speaking after talks with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Last night she travelled to Jerusalem and met Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, on a trip that she hoped would help restart stalled discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Her visit, which followed talks with Arab leaders in Cairo, comes at a worsening time in the Palestinian territories.
Yesterday a group of 135 former presidents and government ministers from across the world, including former US president Jimmy Carter and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, said there was an urgent need for a Middle East conference or at least talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In a statement, organised by the International Crisis Group thinktank, the group, which also included South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said the Middle East was in its "worst crisis for years" and there was a "desperate need for fresh thinking and the injection of new political will".
After seeing Mr Abbas, Ms Rice promised to ask the Israelis to relax the closure of crossing points, which has hampered the Palestinian economy. On a visit last November she helped negotiate an agreement to ease Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in the territories, particularly in Gaza. But, citing security concerns, the Israelis have opened crossings far less frequently than was agreed.
"We are very concerned about humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories and the economic situation," Ms Rice said. "I will see what I can do to see that some of these crossings are open longer and more frequently so economic activity can return."
Although Ms Rice's visit was designed to shore up Mr Abbas, he appears to be some way from preventing a slide into factional fighting or even civil war. Earlier in the day he said there was now "no dialogue" between Fatah and Hamas, which won elections in January. "We have to start from square one," he said.
Ever since Hamas formed the government, Israel has stopped transferring to the Palestinian Authority customs clearance revenues worth about $60m (£32m) a month and the international community has frozen direct financial aid to the government. Israel and the west say Hamas must recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace agreements - conditions it has so far failed to meet.
The blockade, combined with closures of the crossing points has triggered an economic crisis and left 160,000 civil servants unpaid for months. Street demonstrations spilled over into gun battles between rival armed militias on Sunday, in which 12 people have been killed so far. Militants linked to Fatah then threatened to assassinate the top Hamas leadership and yesterday a Hamas leader in the West Bank town of Qalqilya was shot dead.
The political future for the Palestinians is uncertain. Hamas may choose to cling on to power or, in the most extreme scenario, Mr Abbas has the authority to dissolve the government and set up an emergency administration.
One compromise could be a government of technocrats that would not have a Hamas prime minister and which could meet international demands. Abdel Rahman Zaidan, a Hamas cabinet minister, said yesterday this was in the "final stages" of discussion. "There is serious thinking within Hamas to form a national unity government which is composed of professionals, basically, not political faces," he said. "This government would not be headed by a Hamas leader."