Problematic peace talks

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday peace talks with the Palestinian coalition government would be impossible as long as it refuses to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The Israeli Cabinet endorsed Olmert’s hard line, urging the West to maintain harsh economic sanctions imposed with last year’s election of the militant Islamic Hamas. Palestinians had hoped the new alliance between the moderate Fatah and Hamas would lead Israel and Western countries to lift the sanctions, urging the international community to give their new government a chance.

“We can’t have contact with members of a government that justifies resistance, or in other words, terror,” Olmert said, according to meeting participants.

Palestinian officials urged Israel to reconsider.

“This statement continues the long-standing Israeli policy that says there is no Palestinian partner for peace,” said Azzam al-Ahmed of Fatah, the new deputy prime minister. “Israel doesn’t want to revive the peace process.”

The new Palestinian platform appears to soften Hamas’ militant stance. Though it refers to resistance “in all forms” to Israeli occupation, it also calls for consolidating and expanding a truce with Israel.

Olmert said he would maintain contacts with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who was elected separately and is not part of the new Cabinet. But he said any talks would be limited to humanitarian issues.

Almost as soon as the government was sworn in, divisions began to emerge in the Palestinian coalition. Hamas issued a statement yesterday distancing itself from the government: “We call on the national unity government to support the choice of resistance against the occupation.”

Israel has grown concerned that the tough international stance against Hamas could crumble following the group’s power-sharing agreement with Fatah, and signs of that also began to emerge.

Norway, a major donor to the Palestinians, immediately agreed to resume aid. Britain and the United Nations also signaled flexibility, while the U.S. and Israel said yesterday that their positions would not change.

“I think the Israelis have to reconsider their position,” added Planning Minister Samir Abu Eisha, an independent with close ties to Hamas. “If they look at our program in a positive way, they’ll find it positive.”

Israel and the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers – the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia – imposed the sanctions last year after Hamas was elected to power, labeling the Islamist group with a history of suicide bombings a terrorist group. Despite widespread economic hardship, Hamas rejected the Quartet’s conditions for explicit recognition of Israel.

The coalition platform, however, appears to implicitly recognize Israel by calling for a Palestinian state on lands the Israelis captured in 1967, in contrast with Hamas’ past calls to eliminate Israel altogether.

It also pledges to “respect” previous agreements with Israel and authorizes Abbas to conduct future peace talks. Any future deal would be submitted to a national referendum, apparently taking away veto power from Hamas.

During Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the Palestinians maintained the right to resist occupation but would also seek to widen a truce with Israel.

Abbas has said the deal is the best he can get from Hamas.

In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Haniyeh’s comments were “a little troubling” and said the U.S. would watch the new government’s deeds closely. He called on the Palestinians to free an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-allied militants last June and to halt rocket attacks out of the Gaza Strip.

In a break from the Israelis, Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said the U.S. would likely maintain contact with non-Hamas members of the new government.

Arab leaders, meanwhile, pledged support for the unity government. The Jordanian and Saudi kings expressed hope it would lead to Palestinian independence, and the Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called for an end to international sanctions.

The creation of the new Palestinian coalition came ahead of a March 28 Arab summit, where Mideast leaders are hoping to build momentum for a resumption of the peace process with Israel.

In addition to their struggle for international legitimacy, the Palestinians could also crumble over ideological differences and lingering enmity between Fatah and Hamas.

Abbas yesterday named a Gaza strongman known for leading a crackdown on Hamas militants a decade ago as his national security adviser, presidential aides said.

The appointment puts Mohammed Dahlan, a top official in Abbas’ Fatah, in a sensitive position as Palestinian leaders try to reform their myriad and competing security services. Hamas still has rocky relations with Dahlan.