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On the eve of the meeting between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, PA leaders here stepped up their efforts to persuade the international community to accept the "national unity" Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas and lift the financial sanctions imposed on the Palestinians in the aftermath of Hamas's rise to power.
Warning that failure to deal with the new Hamas-led coalition would strengthen the extremists among the Palestinians at the expense of the "moderates," PA representatives expressed hope that Abbas would succeed in persuading Rice not to make a "hasty decision" regarding the unity government.
Sources close to Abbas expressed fear that a US decision to boycott the proposed coalition would be followed by a similar move on the part of the Europeans. They also warned that such a decision would play into the hands of Hamas and place Fatah in an embarrassing situation.
"Hamas will score many points on the Palestinian street if the international community continues to boycott the Palestinian government," the sources said. "All we are saying is that the international community should first wait to see the new government's policy. The unity government will certainly be better than the outgoing Hamas government."
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said the US administration must avoid making prejudgments regarding the unity government. "The Americans must give the new government a chance to prove that it will fulfill the demands of the Quartet and the requirements of the peace process," he said.
"If the Americans are serious about advancing the peace process, then they must give the new government a chance.
"The US and the rest of the international community should respect the will of the Palestinians. The unity government enjoys the backing of all Arab states and Palestinian factions. An American rejection [of the unity government] will be regarded as a challenge to all the Arabs. The Israeli position regarding the Mecca agreement hasn't been positive so far."
Abbas, who met in his office Saturday with US State Department envoy David Welch, said Washington and the international community should accept the Mecca agreement.
Abbas explained that he had no choice but to sign the agreement with the hope that it would prevent an all-out war between Fatah and Hamas.
PA official Saeb Erekat, who participated in the meeting, described the talks as "thorough and candid." He said Abbas stressed the importance of ending the financial sanctions and expressed his desire to resume peace talks with Israel on the basis of US President George W. Bush's two-state vision. "We want a meaningful peace process that will end the occupation," Erekat quoted Abbas as telling the US diplomat.
Erekat said Welch made it clear during the meeting that the US position regarding the unity government would depend on whether the new coalition meets the conditions of the Quartet - recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and abiding by previous agreements signed between the PLO and Israel.
"This is the American position and we heard it again today," Erekat added. "Anything else that was said in this regard does not reflect the official US stance." According to Erekat, Abbas also reassured the US diplomat that the PLO and the PA, and not the new government, would be in charge of future negotiations with Israel.
PLO executive member Yasser Abed Rabbo, who is closely associated with Abbas, appealed to the US to accept the Fatah-Hamas deal. "The PLO and Palestinian Authority are now trying to market the Mecca agreement to the international community with the hope that they will accept it," he said. "Our message to the world is that the new unity government will represent all Palestinian factions and is the fruit of national accord. The new government will respect the agreements and commitments made by the Palestinians. Therefore, it should be given the chance it deserves."
Nasser Laham, editor of the Bethlehem-based Maan news agency, expressed fear that Rice's visit to the region would lead to another round of internal strife in the PA-controlled territories. "Rice is coming to impose new conditions," he said. "My fear is that this woman's visit will lead to renewed fighting. Rice never came to the region with good news for any Arab and Palestinian."
In Gaza City, meanwhile, outgoing PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh launched coalition talks Saturday by meeting with leaders of the Islamic Jihad organization. Haniyeh, who has five weeks to form a unity government, is also expected to meet with representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in a bid to convince them to join the coalition.
Islamic Jihad representative Khaled al-Batsh ruled out the possibility that his organization would join the Hamas-led coalition because of its opposition to the political aspect of the Mecca agreement. PFLP official Kayed al-Ghul said he was pessimistic regarding the prospects of the success of the Mecca agreement.
"Because this agreement is based on the principle of partnership, the power struggle between the two sides will continue and the government will be unable to function," he said. "On the other hand, external pressure on the Palestinians will disrupt the work of the government and probably bring it down."
In a separate development, unidentified gunmen fired at the home of outgoing PA Planning Minister Samir Abu Aisheh in Nablus late Friday night. No one was hurt, but some windows were broken.
There was no claim of responsibility, but Hamas issued a statement in which it accused "agents of the Israeli occupation" of being behind the attack in order to derail the Mecca accord.â€¢