Quartet mulls unity govt

The Quartet has withheld crucial direct financial aid to the Palestinian government since the radical Islamic group Hamas – which refuses to recognise Israel – came to power in elections a year ago.

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The Palestinians hope the new government formed on Thursday, with more moderate members of the Fatah party, will now end their isolation.

Despite signs of an European Union willingness to make contact with individual members of the new government, there was no indication the bloc was considering direct aid.

The United States has been critical of the new Palestinian government, which falls short of Western demands that Palestinian leaders renounce violence, accept Israel's right to exist and abide by previous agreements the Palestinians made with Israel and others.

Some European diplomats in Brussels who spoke on condition of anonymity expressed concern that a split could develop within the Quartet if the EU and Russia move too fast to re-establish links with the Palestinians.

Russia has been much more supportive of the new coalition than the US or the EU, taking the position that working with the Palestinians is more productive than isolation.

Norway, which is not an EU member, is a key donor nation to the Palestinians and already has pledged to resume economic aid. Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen, who arrived in Gaza today, called on other states to follow his country's lead and recognise the new Palestinian coalition.

"What has happened with the new coalition is positive," Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said.

But she said the EU would maintain its aid mechanism, which sidesteps the Palestinian government, "while establishing contact with non-Hamas members of the government we have already worked with, and watching and analysing its acts and deeds."

France and Belgium have moved quickly to re-establish ties with members of the new government.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht is to go to Gaza on Friday where he would be the first minister from an EU nation to meet the new Palestinian foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, Mr De Gucht's spokesman Rudy Huygelen said today.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has sent a letter to Abu Amr suggesting the two meet soon, the ministry in Paris announced today.

In Stockholm, spokesman Christian Carlsson said that "thoughts and ideas" are being discussed about sending Swedish diplomats to meet with the new Palestinian government.

"Frankly speaking, these things don't go against the position of the EU as a whole," said Ms Gallach, "It reflects the EU's position of constructive, cautious engagement with individual members of the new government."

She said Abu Amr, an independent, was one of the Cabinet ministers with whom the EU was willing to work, the others being the ministers of economy and interior.

The Quartet – the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia – consulted Monday via conference call.

Saudi Arabia, which played a key role in persuading Hamas and Fatah to form the government, urged the Quartet on Monday "to shoulder their political and moral responsibility by recognising the Palestinian national unity government and helping carry out its duties."

Ms Gallach played down the possibility of a rift, saying efforts to encourage moderates in the new government were in line with established EU policy of getting the Cabinet to recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect past agreements with the Jewish state.

Washington has so far taken a cautious attitude toward the coalition, but Israel has already rejected the possibility of talks with any government member as long as it refused to recognise the Jewish state.

Foreign ministers of the bloc's 27 member nations are due to meet in Bremen, Germany, in 10 days' time to focus on the issue.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said the question of how the EU deals with the Palestinian government is likely to be a "central theme" at the informal meeting in Bremen.

"We should evaluate very carefully how this government, how the individual members of this government, behave in the coming days and weeks," Mr Jaeger said.

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