U.S. and Israel split over new unity government

Posted in Israel / Palestine , United States | 19-Mar-07 | Author: Isabel Kershner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.

JERUSALEM: Differences emerged Sunday in the Israeli and American approaches to the new Palestinian unity government, though the core policies of both remain fundamentally in tune.

The Israeli cabinet voted overwhelmingly to boycott the Palestinian government, while the American Consulate in Jerusalem said it does not rule out contacts with moderate Palestinian "individuals" who are now government ministers.

The unity government is dominated by Hamas, an Islamic movement defined as a terror organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union. It also includes figures from the mainstream Fatah faction and several independents.

Two key independent members, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr, have enjoyed good relations with the West in the past.

An international economic and political embargo was imposed on the Palestinian Authority government after Hamas won elections over a year ago.

"We are not going to change our policy of not dealing with foreign terrorist organizations, of which Hamas is one," said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman at the American Consulate in Jerusalem. But she added: "We won't rule out contact with certain individuals with whom we have had contact before. We will evaluate the situation as we go along."

The use of the word "individuals" seems to imply that any contacts will be in a private capacity, rather than dealings between government officials.

Indeed, American officials said they were "disappointed," on first impression, with the Palestinian unity government platform that was unveiled on Saturday. Schweitzer-Bluhm said the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, of Hamas, had "failed to step up to international standards."

Israel and the West had hoped that the new government would explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept all previous signed agreements. Instead, the new government agreed only to "respect" previous agreements, did not specifically endorse a two-state solution, and insisted on the Palestinians' "legitimate right" to resist occupation "by all means."

Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, said Sunday, "The platform of the new government includes very problematic elements that cannot be acceptable to Israel or the international community."

Israel, like the United States, still sees the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, as a partner for dialogue. Abbas is not a member of the government and accepts the international principles. But Olmert said that Israel will now limit its talks with him to humanitarian matters.

There is a certain contradiction in the fact that Israel will deal with Abbas, but not with Palestinian ministers who meet the international criteria, like Fayyad, according to Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The U.S. administration is trying to leave itself "wiggle room" by allowing for individual contacts, he said in a telephone interview, adding that "the Israeli position leaves itself open to such developments."

Israel is struggling to maintain a solid international boycott of the new unity government. Some European countries, among them Britain, are said to be considering dealing with moderate members of the Palestinian government.

The minister of internal security for Israel, Avi Dichter, a member of Olmert's Kadima party, has also proposed talking to Palestinian ministers who accept the international principles, Israel Radio said.

But an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, rejected making any distinction between Palestinian government ministers. "Moderates in the Palestinian government cannot be fig leaves" for Haniya and the "extremist" government platform, he said. "It is one government, with one platform and one prime minister," he added.

He provided no specific reaction to the U.S. Consulate announcement but said, "We have an open dialogue with the United States. Obviously we're following events closely."

The United States has rarely provided direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, channeling assistance through the United Nations and other organizations instead. That assistance to the Palestinian people will continue, Schweitzer-Bluhm said.