France pledges to cooperate with Palestinian coalition government

By News Agencies

Haaretz

Adar 7,5767

France pledged Saturday to cooperate with a coalition Palestinian government that would include the militant Hamas party, in a key boost for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

However, Abbas' European tour failed to make headway on resuming aid for the financially crippled Palestinian Authority.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's promise to work with a government including Hamas and the moderate Fatah party was the bright spot in Abbas' four-country swing through Europe this week. Other European leaders were more cautious, preferring to wait until the government is formed before making any commitments.

"I encouraged Mr. Abbas to persevere in his efforts to quickly form a national unity government," Douste-Blazy told reporters Saturday evening as Abbas wrapped up his trip.

"If the government is formed according to the power-sharing deal worked out in Mecca last month," Douste-Blazy said, France will be ready to cooperate with it. And our country will plead on its behalf within the European Union and with other partners in the international community.

Abbas welcomed the pledge, though it was unclear how far France could go in supporting the Palestinians without the backing of the rest of the EU or other members of the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Douste-Blazy made no commitments on lifting the aid embargo imposed on the Palestinian government. Half of the Palestinian Authority's budget came from foreign assistance until much of it was frozen following Hamas election victory a year ago.

Abbas also said he would push for the release of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit before the new government is formed. Shalit's capture by Palestinian militants last June sparked weeks of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. Chirac and Douste-Blazy urged his release again Saturday.

Speaking after a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac earlier on Saturday, Abbas said "we cannot say there is anything that is completely hopeless. We must continue to try to work to find a solution. We must continue to talk to the Israelis. We are partners with the Israelis, partners for peace."

Abbas also repeated a call for the lifting of an international economic blockade of a new Palestinian unity government.

Speaking after the meeting, Abbas told reporters: "What we asked for is that the new government that will be formed not be subjected to the same embargo to which the current government is being subjected."

Abbas made similar statements after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, expressing optimism that the boycott would be at least softened by the time the Quartet hold their next meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators, comprising the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, is split over how to deal with the planned government between Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas, which Washington views as a terrorist group.

The Quartet repeated a demand on Wednesday that any Palestinian government renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept interim peace deals.

Though the unity government fell short of directly meeting those demands, Western diplomats said the agreement between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction widened divisions within the Quartet.

The U.S. and Israel want to continue to shun the unity government; Russia and some other European governments favor a softer line.

Abbas said he believed Wednesday's meeting was encouraging.

"I think the last meeting was a good meeting. The Quartet said 'Let's wait and see.' It was not a rejection, it was an expression of a certain hesitation," he said in the courtyard of Chirac's Elysee Palace.

Abbas said Friday he was determined to push the planned Palestinian unity government into complying with Western demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

"We did not change our position, we did not change our principles," Abbas told reporters after a meeting with the European Union's chief diplomat Javier Solana in Brussels. Abbas met Solana as part of a tour of European nations in efforts to build support for an eventual lifting of a crippling international aid embargo.

Abbas said that his Fatah party remained "committed to the principles of a two-state-solution, renouncing violence and terror and reiterating our commitment to agreements signed."

Fatah agreed to share power with the ruling Hamas movement earlier this month despite the militant group's continued refusal to recognize Israel.

Solana said that the EU had to wait and see how the planned Palestinian unity government would operate before making any decisions.

"We cannot boycott what does not exist, the government still has not been formed," Solana said, but he stressed that the new administration would have to comply with the three Quartet principles.

Solana cautioned that a Palestinian unity government would either be "part of a solution or ... be part of the problem."

The EU was not boycotting the Palestinian people, Solana stressed, adding that the 27-member bloc would continue its help and "if possible" even increase aid to the Palestinians this year.

Earlier Friday, Abbas met with Merkel, who welcomed the planned Palestinian coalition but said any new government must meet the Quartet's conditions.

Merkel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the power-sharing deal reached between Abbas' Fatah faction and Hamas was positive because it stopped the fighting between the two that cost some 130 lives.

"It is good that the bloodletting, especially in Gaza, has been stopped, but there is a difficult stretch in front of us," Merkel said after meeting with Abbas in Berlin.

Syria-based exiled political leader of Hamas Khaled Meshal said Friday that his faction will not budge from its position and blamed the U.S. for the failure of the international community to lift the financial embargo on the Palestinians.

Meshal also said that efforts were still under way through Egypt to broker the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted by pro-Hamas militants in June.

As a father, Meshal said he understood what Shalit's father was going through.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a three-day visit to Cairo, Meshal criticized the Quartet's meeting this week in Berlin for failing to lift the embargo on the Palestinians.

The gathering searched for a way to advance the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts amid strong misgivings about the planned unity government between rival militant Hamas and the moderate Fatah.

Meshal blasted Washington's stand to postpone any decisions about lifting the blockade until the Hamas-Fatah power sharing government takes hold.

"The postponement ... is an evidence that the American position is not convincing," said Meshal.

Meanwhile, foreign ministers of seven Muslim countries and the chief of the Organization of the Islamic Conference will meet in Pakistan this weekend to prepare for an Islamic summit aimed at ending turbulence in the Middle East.

The idea for a summit of the Islamic countries has been championed by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who has long said the Palestinian conflict was the root of terrorism and extremism.

Musharraf, whose government does not recognize Israel but has held talks with it, has expressed gloom about the problems besetting the region and has urged a new initiative.

Indonesia invites Hamas and Western envoys for talks
Indonesia has invited Hamas and Western representatives to talks in Jakarta next month in a bid to persuade the militant group to moderate its position and help end a crippling economic blockade of the Palestinian government.

Indonesia has received assurances from Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal that he would send envoys to Jakarta for the talks, foreign ministry spokesman Desra Percaya said.

"We want to hear from Hamas their views on solving the Palestinian-Israeli issue and outside parties have yet to hear directly from them what it is that they want," Percaya told a news conference.

He did not give an exact date for the meeting but said it would take place before the end of March.

Percaya said despite the formation of a Palestinian unity government, the meeting remained relevant because issues surrounding Western demands for Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept interim peace deals with Israel would not be resolved any time soon.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood and has no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Percaya said Indonesia had also invited "individuals" from Europe and the United States to participate in the talks and hoped that a Western recognition of the Palestinian unity government would ease the economic blockade. He did not say whether the Western representatives had accepted the invitation.

Western diplomats have said the agreement between Hamas Abbas's Fatah faction widened divisions within the Quartet - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The unity government agreement, which calmed weeks of factional warfare that killed more than 90 Palestinians, contained a vague promise to "respect" previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

But it fell short of meeting the Quartet's demands for Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Hamas took control of the Palestinian government in March after winning parliamentary elections.

The U.S.-led boycott of the Hamas-led government has pushed the Palestinian Authority to the brink of financial collapse and raised poverty rates in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

A report by the United Nations World Food Program, released on Thursday, estimated that nearly half of Palestinians were unable to produce or access the food they needed.