Quartet: Diplomatic Talks With Abbas, No to Contact With Hamas

WASHINGTON - Members of the international Quartet Friday expressed support for the mediation efforts of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The group, which is made up of Middle East peace negotiators of the U.S., UN, EU and Russia, welcomed a meeting scheduled for later this month between Rice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas aimed at defining "more clearly the political horizon for the Palestinian people" and discussing final-status issues.

The statement also emphasized, however, the belief that the road map is still the best path for achieving a peace settlement. It welcomed the recent Arab peace initiative, "particularly its reflection of a shared commitment to a two-state solution."

Disagreement between the U.S. and Russia was clearly visible during a press conference here. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said the policy of isolating Hamas will not achieve the desired results and supported holding talks with the organization. However, Russia did endorse the Quartet's statement calling for a Palestinian government "committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations," the conditions set out when Hamas came to power about a year ago.

Lavrov characterized his country's dialogue with Hamas as a "political force" aimed at helping the organization to understand its responsibility. American officials said after the press conference that nothing has been achieved by the contacts between various states and Hamas.

The Quartet announced after the meeting, which was also attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that it would reexamine the methods by which it transfers money to the PA.

U.S. officials emphasized that they did not intend to transfer money directly to the Hamas government but were seeking more efficient allocation methods. After a year of "emergency" transfers, the officials said, it was now clear that Hamas was not changing its policies and that an appropriate long-term transfer method was needed. The review will include ways to assist in the creation of effective "Palestinian government institutions," as requested by the Europeans.

The statement also condemned the suicide bombing in Eilat last week and demanded an immediate end to all rocket attacks against Israel.

U.S. officials Friday reported on aid transfers to the Palestinians, noting that since Hamas came to power, aid to the Palestinian population doubled from $350 million in 2005 to $700 million in 2006, mainly channeled through non-governmental organizations. The officials said that donor countries had intended to transfer about $400 million of that sum directly to the Hamas government before the U.S. convinced them to choose other distribution means.

American officials believe that only about $46 million in direct aid to Hamas has reached its target, and that the Hamas government has succeeded in raising an additional $150 million from internal sources (taxes).

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni praised the Quartet press announcement, saying that it "insisted on the unequivocal demands made on the extremists and terror organizations to denounce violence and terror, to recognize Israel and to accept the previous agreements, including the road map; while at the same time reinforcing the moderates and dialogue with them in order to provide a horizon for peace while preserving security principles."