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U.s., the World, Know P.A. is New, but Must Decide if It’s Improved


With the Palestinian Authority claiming it has reformed, the dilemma becomes how to deal with it: Shun it? Embrace it? Check it out further?

Those are the choices many nations are considering as a year-long solid front against recognizing the Hamas government appears on the verge of collapse.

The debate over what’s in store with a new Palestinian Authority unity government that joins the terrorist group Hamas with its formerly deadly rival, the more moderate Fatah, is engaging not just heads of state but the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Jewish community.

After Hamas was elected to power last year, the diplomatic “Quartet” guiding the Mideast peace process cut off direct aid and set three conditions for the government to meet before aid could resume: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements.

How far will the new P.A. government go toward meeting those principles? In a sense, it boils down to what “all” means.

On March 17, when the Palestinian legislature approved the new government in a show of hands, Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president from Fatah said the new government would reject “all forms of violence.”

Yet P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told the same parliament, on the same day, on the same occasion, that “resistance in all its forms” is legitimate.

If that wasn’t contradiction enough, the Mecca Agreement that formed the basis for the unity government, reached last month under Saudi guidance, said the government “respects” but would not necessarily “honor” past agreements with Israel.

The result? A diplomatic Rorschach test on whether to keep funding the Palestinian Authority and whether to deal with the new government’s non-Hamas ministers.

For Israel, nothing has changed. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said it would continue to boycott the P.A. government and deal only with Abbas, as in the past.

That’s because, the stat! ement sa id, the new government’s platform identifies terror as a legitimate option and accepts previous agreements with Israel “based only in accordance with Palestinian interests.”

Israel would continue dealing with Abbas, the statement said, but the range of topics in those meetings would be limited because of his new alliance with Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she wanted further clarifications before the United States would consider ending its isolation of the P.A. government.

“I’m not going to try to interpret what the right of resistance means, but I’ll tell you it doesn’t sound very good to me when one talks about all forms of resistance,” she said Monday after meeting with top E.U. foreign policy officials. “So I would put the question to the Palestinian government and to its prime minister: Do you mean the right of resistance by violence? And let’s get an answer.”

In practice, however, there was a slight difference between Israeli and U.S. policy: U.S. officials would meet with non-Hamas ministers.

On Tuesday, Jacob Walles, the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, met with Salam Fayyad, the P.A.’s new finance minister, who has a reputation in Washington for honesty stemming from an earlier stint as finance minister.

“It’s a case-by-case situation, it’s evolving,” a U.S. official told JTA. “We’re all for unity in terms of moving forward, but there has to be movement forward.”

Palestinians said the meeting suggested a subtle and, from their view, positive change.

“This is not the reaction we would have wanted,” said Samar Assad, who directs the Palestine Center think tank in Washington. The United States should recognize that “only a unity government can deliver on a deal. Having said that, any step forward is positive.”

Congress was keeping a watchful eye on how the administration dealt with the new government. A letter gathering signatures in the Senate urged Rice not to deal with the new coal! ition.

At first the letter appeared to encourage a ban on dealings with Abbas as well, calling for “no direct aid and no contacts with any members” of the Palestinian Authority. Jewish community leaders were concerned that the senators circulating the letter, John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), were overreaching, since the community backs continued engagement with Abbas.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs hosted a conference call on the matter. Due to pressure from Jewish and other groups, the letter was redrafted to make it clear that Abbas was still kosher. Officials with pro-Israel lobbying groups said the original draft had been poorly worded.

Israel’s backers in Congress said they were skeptical of the new government’s platform.

“They use the word ‘respect,’ but they won t even call Israel by name, calling it the ‘Zionist entity,’ ” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told JTA.

Yet France, looking at the same national unity document, saw progress.

“By signaling the Palestinian government’s full commitment to honor the PLO and Palestinian Authority’s resolutions and international commitments, the Mecca agreement is indeed a first important step toward the full respect of the Quartet’s three principles, which remains France and the whole international community’s objective,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste Blazy wrote Friday to his new P.A. counterpart, Ziad Abu Amr.

Speaking at Harvard University the same day, French Prime Minister Domenique de Villepin called for the immediate resumption of aid to the Palestinians.

“We must resume direct assistance to the Palestinian national unity government as soon as it’s inaugurated,” de Villepin said. “We must also resume aid to cooperation projects in order to re-establish the conditions for real development.”

Norway recognized the new government and immediately sent Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen to meet with its officials. Israeli officials then r! efused t o meet with Johansen.

Other European leaders were more circumspect. Meeting Monday with Rice, top E.U. foreign officials said they preferred to maintain the status quo for now: funneling emergency aid to the Palestinians through a mechanism that bypasses the P.A. government.

“We have entered a state where we are very carefully watching the declarations, the statements made by the new government, also the first decisions and actions to be taken by that new government,” said Foreign Mminister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer of Germany, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency. “And of course, this is going to have an influence on the readiness of the Europeans to cooperate with that government.”

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the E.U.’s external relations commissioner, said the period of watching would last about three months. The Quartet composed of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations issued a similar statement after a conference call of its representatives Monday.

A letter gathering signatures in the U.S. House of Representatives urged the European Union to maintain a hard line on the Palestinians.

“We strongly urge you to maintain restrictions of direct aid to any Palestinian government until such time as that government fulfills its Quartet obligations,” said the letter, which had garnered more than 220 signatures by Tuesday.

Jewish groups backed that line. A statement from the American Jewish Committee commended the Quartet and expressed its disappointment with Norway. The JCPA called for a continued aid freeze.

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