JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States has warned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that peace talks with Israel will go nowhere if his Fatah faction forms a unity government with Hamas, diplomats and Palestinian officials said on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was reserving judgement on the new government until it was formed, and denied in a television interview that the United States had already decided to boycott all ministers in the government.
The diplomats and officials said the warning was delivered to Abbas on Thursday, tightening diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian leader ahead of his meeting on Monday with Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“The Americans told (Abbas) they will boycott the government, sanctions will not be lifted, and peace moves will not develop as planned,” one diplomat in the region said. A Palestinian official confirmed his comments.
Abbas formally asked Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Thursday to form the unity government which Palestinians hope will end factional fighting and overcome a paralysing Western aid boycott imposed after Hamas won elections last year.
The process could take several weeks, and disputes over cabinet positions and the fate of Hamas’s “executive” police force could still derail it.
Speaking alongside Abbas on Thursday night, Haniyeh did not say whether Hamas would drop its refusal to recognise the Jewish state, renounce violence and accept existing peace agreements as the Quartet of Middle East mediators demand.
In an interview with Al Arabiya television, Rice said the government must meet Quartet conditions, adding: “There is no government so far and we will not judge it before its formation.”
But Palestinian officials say that privately Washington has been piling pressure on Abbas over the unity deal agreed a week ago in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, telling him it does not meet the Quartet’s requirements.
Rice is due to hold a three-way summit with Abbas and Olmert in Jerusalem on Monday, which had been billed as the start of a renewed U.S. effort to try to broker a Middle East peace deal.
“Abbas faces a crisis with this new U.S. position,” a Palestinian official said.
He said the Palestinian leader would try to persuade Rice that his deal with Hamas was a “first positive step” to bringing the Islamist group into the mainstream, and that he -- not the government -- was responsible for the peace talks.
Speaking to Palestinian television after he asked Haniyeh to form the government, Abbas said the Palestinian Authority was “fully committed” to existing agreements with Israel.
“He has reiterated his position ... as a message that he can deliver on peace moves,” the official said.
Western diplomats said Washington’s goal was to dissuade Fatah members and independents, including economist Salam Fayyad who had been expected to take the finance portfolio, from joining the new government.
One diplomat said the pressure could backfire, giving Fayyad and others little choice but to join the government. “There is too much internal pressure,” said one diplomat familiar with the discussions.
Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo urged the United States to deal with the government, lift the sanctions, and relaunch serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“They want Abbas to take actions that lead to a civil war -- to protect past agreements that the Israelis have destroyed,” he said. Factional warfare in Gaza in the two months leading up to the Mecca agreement had killed 90 Palestinians.
Palestinian officials said they had hoped Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, would persuade the Americans not to reject the unity government deal out of hand.
”If the Americans are serious about advancing peace moves they must give this government a chance,“ Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said. ”This unity government enjoys support of all the Arabs, and the U.S. refusal to deal with such a government would be a challenge to the Arab consensus. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous)