Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the entire Palestinian Cabinet on Thursday, a gesture of support for the team of moderates that replaced the Hamas government after the Islamic militants seized Gaza by force.
Hamas considers the West Bank-based government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to be illegitimate.
On Thursday, Rice met separately with Fayyad, then was introduced to his team of ministers. Rice addressed the Cabinet in the room where it holds its regular meetings.
Hamas, whose government was fired by President Mahmoud Abbas after the Gaza takeover, accused Rice of trying to deepen the divisions among Palestinians.
“Rice did not come to the region to establish a Palestinian state, as she and her master Bush claimed, but instead she came to support one Palestinian party against another, and to support the Zionist occupation,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
After attending the Cabinet session, Rice was to hold talks with Abbas at his nearby headquarters.
Autumn peace conference key for Palestinians
Palestinian officials said the key item on the Rice-Abbas agenda is a Middle East peace conference set for the fall. The officials said they want the conference, announced last month by President Bush, to yield real results, not just agreement on holding more meetings.
The Palestinians have been pushing for a resumption of negotiations with Israel on a final peace deal, something Israel has been reluctant to agree to. Instead, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have been talking in general about the contours of a future Palestinian state.
“We don’t want another meeting void of implementing mechanisms,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said of the fall conference. “What we need to see is timelines and mechanisms for implementation.”
Palestinian officials said they also will tell Rice that Israel must start withdrawing troops from West Bank cities and restore the control of the Palestinian security forces there.
Israel seeks quick settlement for West Bank
In previous meetings, Abbas and Olmert agreed in principle to the idea, but the Israeli military is concerned a troop pullback will increase risks of renewed attacks on Israel by Palestinian militants.
On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel will push quickly for a political settlement with the larger West Bank.
“Israel is not going to miss this opportunity,” Livni said Wednesday as Rice began her first visit to Israel since the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
The Bush administration, which has been tentatively exploring a renewed peace initiative for months, insists that the fall of Gaza to Hamas is actually a moment of hope.
“Ultimately the Palestinian people have to choose what kind of world they will live in, what kind of state they will have,” Rice told reporters Wednesday. “We do have in the Palestinian territories a government that is devoted to the ... foundational principles for peace, and this is an opportunity that should not be missed.”
Livni said the West Bank can “be an example” for cooperation or negotiation with Israel.
“The implementation of any kind of understanding between Israel and the Palestinian government can be in accordance to the places of the territories in which there is an effective government,” Livni said.
Later, Rice discussed the matter with Olmert, agreeing to “keep Hamas out of the game” on all levels, said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.
Their words confirmed what has been an increasingly obvious strategy: Isolate the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip while lavishing money, and political legitimacy on Abbas and his new government.
Israel has released frozen tax money as a sign of good will, and in a symbolic gesture freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Thousands more remain in Israeli jails, but the move lent Abbas street credibility he has often lacked.
Olmert recently floated the idea of a joint declaration on the contours of a Palestinian state, and Abbas said last week he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel within a year.