(photo credit: AP)
The Quartet reaffirmed Friday its commitment to the conditions Hamas must meet to end the economic blockade, even as Russian backing for contact with Hamas deepened rifts with the US administration and its approach.
In a press conference following the Friday meeting in Washington of the Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists that shunning Hamas and Syria wasn't an effective policy.
"I don't think that... this problem... could [be resolved] through boycott and isolation," Lavrov said.
"In this case, Syria could play a constructive role," Lavrov said, pointing to Syria's facilitation of a recent meeting between exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Damascus. At the same time, Lavrov said that Friday's Quartet statement "fully reflected" the Russian position.
The statement ended by repeating the three demands the international community has set as a condition for dealing with the Hamas government, and which have been rejected for the year now that the Islamic organization has controlled the Palestinian legislature: stopping terrorism, recognizing Israel and honoring all existing agreements.
"The Quartet reaffirmed that these principles endure. The Quartet reiterated its call for the PA government to commit to these principles," the statement concluded.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency and who visited Syria in November, told the press, "We are working for a comprehensive peace solution in the Middle East, and that means we have to engage other partners beyond Israel and Palestine."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a different attitude on engaging Syria.
"Syria knows what it needs to do to be a stabilizing force," she said, alluding to previous contacts "at the highest levels" between Americans and Syrians. "Syria doesn't need the United States to tell it what it could do to be a stabilizing force."
A senior administration official threw more cold water on the concept of talking to Syria and Hamas when he suggested that the Russian approach didn't seem to be working when it came to its attempts to forge a Palestinian national unity government.
"It's hard to see a positive influence," he said.
At the same time, the official pointed to the effectiveness of the monetary sanctions in limiting funds going to Hamas. He said that Hamas had been able to collect only some $150 million in taxes and other forms of internal revenue during its 10 months in office - about the same as the PA needs to function for one month.
Beyond that, he estimated that Hamas had smuggled in another $45m.-50m., while the United States had persuaded donors of PA funds, mainly Arab countries, to redirect $400m. to Abbas rather than Hamas. Overall, he said, some $700m. in international aid had gone to the Palestinians while circumventing Hamas, a sum to which Russia contributed only $10m.
The official also pointed out that the temporary funding mechanism being used by European countries to bypass Hamas had contributed more to the Palestinians in two months than Hamas had provided in 10.
The Quartet statement called for that mechanism to be "further developed." The document also urged an end to internecine Palestinian violence.
In response to a question on whether it was realistic to expect progress in the peace process amid such bloodshed, Rice said, "There is simply no reason to avoid the subject of how we get to a Palestinian state. I think, in fact, the political horizon of a Palestinian state can help to show the Palestinian people what is possible, what is possible in the establishment of a state, a viable state that would live side by side with Israel."
But Israel's ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, expressed some concern about creating unrealistic goals for both peoples in the region.
When asked Friday to address the concept of this "political horizon," Meridor said it "may be important to a point and may be extremely dangerous beyond a point."
Meridor told the audience at a World Affairs Council of America conference in Washington: "It's critical for the Palestinians to believe that at the end of the process there will be a Palestinian state living in dignity."
But Meridor cautioned, "We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We think all should be careful about creating expectations that can't be met, and maybe bring about a collapse and violence."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the Quartet statement reflected the principles of weakening extremists and radicals and strengthening moderates. This, she said in a statement, "was the right thing to do."
In Jerusalem, government officials - obviously pleased that the Quartet rebuffed Russia's attempts to force it to lift its boycott of the Hamas government - sufficed with saying that Israel "finds the decision of the Quartet acceptable."
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.