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Palestinian deal complicates Bush peace effort

A power-sharing deal between the secular, U.S.-backed Palestinian leader and his Islamic militant rivals complicates an emerging U.S. effort to invigorate dormant peace prospects with Israel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A power-sharing deal between the secular, U.S.-backed Palestinian leader and his Islamic militant rivals complicates an emerging U.S. effort to invigorate dormant peace prospects with Israel.

The deal announced Thursday between warring Palestinian factions does not expressly commit the new government to conditions the United States has called essential first steps toward any political accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Bush administration said little in public about the agreement, but officials were troubled at the prospect of a unified Palestinian government that will not renounce violence or recognize Israel.

"We're going to have to see," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "At this juncture they are very preliminary reports, and we have not had any opportunity to study what may have been worked out there."

U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion that the deal would scuttle a planned peace summit among Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S. passes no judgment
Late Thursday, the State Department issued a cautious statement that avoided judgment on reports of a deal, saying officials had not yet seen details of either the composition or the political program for the new government.

"We remain committed to the president's vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, and to the road map as the way forward toward that goal," spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said.

Olmert had announced the Feb. 19 three-way meeting one day before the Palestinian deal emerged at a conference in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Rice plans several days of diplomatic meetings in the Middle East surrounding the summit, which she has described as a way to build confidence between Palestinians and Israelis, who have not held serious peace talks for six years.

Rice is set to report on the meeting days later at a separate gathering of would-be international peacemakers. The United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia are shepherds of a dormant peace proposal that would lead to an eventual independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

That plan predates the Palestinian elections of a year ago, in which Hamas militants trounced Abbas' Fatah Party, which set up a political impasse and caused most other governments to stop international financial aid to the cash-strapped Palestinians.

The four-member peacemaking group set out conditions for Hamas last year that Hamas has never met. Besides demanding that Hamas swear off violence and accept Israel, the peacemaking group said Hamas must agree to abide by international agreements, including those with Israel, made by the previous secular Palestinian government.

Too little from new government?
The slim details available about the deal reached Thursday included a promise that the new government would "respect" peace deals with Israel. It was not clear whether that would be enough.

The United States, European Union and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and U.S. law forbids direct dealings with it.

Rival Palestinian leaders signed the agreement after emergency talks brokered by Saudi Arabia.

Abbas said the deal would "satisfy our people ... and bring us to the shores of peace. ... This initiative has been crowned with success."

Abbas was elected separately and retains office. He is the only top Palestinian official with whom the Bush administration will deal, and it is unclear whether the new power-sharing arrangement would change that.

It also is unclear whether the bargain with Hamas will strengthen Abbas or weaken him, affecting his ability to negotiate with Israel.

Martin Indyk, ambassador to Israel under former President Bill Clinton, said the deal may also increase international pressure to relax the terms for Hamas to gain legitimacy.

"It's going to present a real problem for the United States and Israel" if the government does not meet the three conditions, he said.

Indyk raised the possibility of a U.S. split with Russia and Europe. At a news conference with Rice last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a point of expressing opposition to international isolation of Hamas.

Russia and European nations "may now say, 'This is what the Palestinians have produced; now we have to work with them,'" Indyk said.