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Hopes dim as Rice heads to Middle East for talks

JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves today for the Middle East to launch a long-awaited U.S. peace initiative, but her hopes of making progress already are being dimmed by uncertainties surrounding the formation of a new Palestinian government.

“I’ll be very candid. It is more complicated” because the government hasn’t been formed and its policies aren’t known, Rice told reporters in Washington. Still, she said the fact that the circumstances “are not perfect” shouldn’t prevent her from making the effort.

Palestinian leaders moved Thursday toward establishing a unity government that will include ministers from Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist group, and the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh officially resigned as head of the 11-month-old Cabinet, and under a deal worked out in Mecca last week, Abbas immediately asked him to form a new government with Fatah and smaller parties.

While details remain to be worked out, there’s no sign that the new government will accept international demands to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Rice said the United States will hold off on making a “yes or no” judgment until the government is formed. But she repeated that the Bush administration will deal only with Palestinians who meet the international demands.

Israel has taken a similar stance.

While in the region, Rice plans to convene a three-way meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the outlines of an eventual Palestinian state.

The larger question facing the United States and Israel is how to deal with their ally Abbas, who lost control of the Palestinian government in last year’s elections, which propelled the hard-line Hamas into power. Abbas’ pact with Hamas has increased suspicion of him in Israel, even though he retains strong support in Washington.

Over the past year, Israel, the United States and the international community have severed most political, military and economic ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Despite the debilitating isolation, Hamas leaders have refused to abandon their pledge to destroy Israel and establish a new Islamic nation.

Rice said the Bush administration will continue to back Abbas, whom she described as a force for peace.

On Thursday, Olmert said he still intends to work with Abbas – for now.


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