Palestinians lock over unity effort

JERICHO, WEST BANK — JERICHO, WEST BANK -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday that his long struggle to replace the Hamas-led government with a more moderate coalition had reached a "dead end," complicating the goal of renewed peace talks with Israel.

Visibly upset, Abbas delivered the news during Rice's visit to the West Bank and Israel, a trip aimed at encouraging dialogue and building on the momentum of the four-day-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.


With Arab allies prodding the Bush administration to intervene, Rice's meetings with Abbas here and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem produced no immediate breakthrough.

"Hopefully, we can take this moment to accelerate our efforts and intensify our efforts toward the two-state solution that we all desire," Rice said, standing beside Abbas at a news conference and endorsing Palestinian aspirations for an independent state alongside Israel.


Rice brought praise for both leaders, calling Abbas' initiative to bring about the truce "extraordinary." Later, she lauded Olmert's offer of peace talks and his restraint in response to scattered Palestinian cease-fire violations.

The cease-fire is "quite fragile," Rice said, "but we would like to see it consolidated and then extended" to the West Bank.

Rice met separately with the two leaders after Olmert, according to Israeli newspapers, rejected a proposed joint meeting with Abbas and President Bush, who was visiting Jordan.

In a speech Monday, Olmert offered to open negotiations with Abbas, but only after Hamas frees a captured Israeli soldier and gives way to a new Palestinian government that recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

Abbas' announcement of a deadlock came as an Egyptian mediator reported progress toward a deal to exchange the captured soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Abbas, the Fatah Party leader, retained the presidency after Hamas came to power in elections early this year. For months he has been pressing the militant Islamic movement to step aside in favor of a broadly representative unity government made up mostly of nonpartisan technocrats acceptable to the West, which has cut off aid to the Hamas-led government.

Until this week, Abbas had sounded hopeful of pulling off such a move, which he thought would prompt U.S. and European countries to drop the economic sanctions that have left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay its 165,000 employees.

But talks on a unity government broke down over what Abbas' aides considered excessive demands to allow Hamas to retain the interior and finance ministries, which control the security forces and the treasury.