Guardian February 19, 2007
Israel and the US have agreed to refuse recognition to a new Palestinian coalition government ahead of talks in Jerusalem today, the Israeli prime minister said yesterday, reducing the already slim prospects of progress in the peace process.
Ehud Olmert, who is due to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, at a meeting chaired by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in a Jerusalem hotel this morning, said that he and the US had agreed to shun the new Palestinian unity government.
When the talks were first announced a month ago they were hailed as the biggest effort in six years to restart peace negotiations, and came alongside new meetings of the Quartet of Middle East negotiators: the US , the UN, the EU and Russia . One UN diplomat at the time described the effort as a "launching pad for the new peace process", and Ms Rice spoke of "trying to accelerate progress on the road map".
But there is now little expectation that the talks will produce any new deals. Mr Olmert, who spoke by phone to George Bush on Friday, said that the US and Israel had agreed that the new Palestinian government, to be formed following a rare agreement between rival factions earlier this month, would not be recognised because it still failed to meet the Quartet's conditions: that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace agreements. "A Palestinian government that won't accept the Quartet conditions won't receive recognition and cooperation," Mr Olmert said yesterday. "The American and Israeli positions are totally identical on this issue."
Washington had said it would wait to decide on the new government until after it had been formed, which could take another five weeks, and until its programme had become clear.
The Palestinians had hoped that today's meeting would set out more clearly the details of a future Palestinian state, including issues such as borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees. They argued that a clearer definition of what a future settlement would look like might speed up the peace process.
Yesterday Ms Rice met Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert separately ahead of today's talks. "I hope that this meeting of the three of us will be an opportunity to examine the current situation, to commit - recommit - to existing agreements but also to begin to explore and probe the political and diplomatic horizon," she said.
Although the agreement for a new coalition Palestinian government does not meet the Quartet's conditions, it has brought a halt to the factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah that had claimed more than 100 lives and threatened a slide into civil war. The Palestinians argue that Mr Abbas would risk restarting the violence if he pulled out of the agreement now and note that he heads the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which has already recognised Israel .
But Israel says that Mr Abbas should distance himself from the radical elements of Hamas.
There is pressure from some quarters in Israel for the government to make a move. "Placing the blame for stalling on the other side, in this case on Hamas, will not prevent terror attacks and holds no hope for the future," an editorial in the left-leaning Ha'aretz said yesterday. "It is the responsibility of Israel 's leadership to prepare itself and the nation that elected it for a daring and far-reaching political plan, even if the conditions for its implementation have not yet been created."