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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed US support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas even as she said his plan to govern alongside Hamas complicates US peacemaking efforts.
Rice suggested Thursdasy that the Bush administration has strong reservations about Abbas's planned union with a group the West labels terrorists, but she would not confirm that US diplomats have warned Abbas that Washington would shun the new government.
Rice said she will reserve judgment until the coalition government is formed and its policies clear. She said she has seen no evidence yet that the government intends to meet international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by agreements made by the previous secular Palestinian government.
"Talking about recognizing or not recognizing the government" is premature, Rice said. "There isn't one yet. When there is one, the United States will make a determination."
Rice spoke to newspaper reporters ahead of a Middle East trip that includes a joint meeting with Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was the first time she has addressed the deal brokered last week in Saudi Arabia without US help.
The top US diplomat has described that meeting as the first step in what the United States hopes will be reinvigorated peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Peace efforts are "obviously more complicated because of the uncertainties surrounding the national unity government," but there is no reason to delay either the meeting or associated efforts to offer Palestinians a more hopeful future, Rice said.
Earlier Thursday, Abbas entrusted Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Thursday with forming a unity government that will "fully respect" previous agreements between the PLO and Israel, as well as United Nations and Arab League summit resolutions concerning the Middle East conflict.
PA officials, meanwhile, confirmed that the US has informed Abbas it will boycott all the ministers in the unity government.
Analysis: Abbas cancels Mecca Accord speech
PA representative Saeb Erekat said Washington was insisting that any government meet the demands of the Quartet - recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between the PLO and Israel.
"We're aware of Washington's threat, but we had no other choice," a senior PA official told The Jerusalem Post. "President Abbas will try to persuade US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during their meeting next week that the new government will honor all the previous agreements with Israel."
A number of Hamas legislators urged Abbas on Thursday to call off his meeting with Rice in protest against Washington's position toward the planned coalition government.
Abbas announced his decision following a brief meeting in Gaza City with Haniyeh, who submitted his resignation to pave the way for the establishment of a Hamas-led unity government in keeping with last week's agreement in Mecca.
Haniyeh has three weeks to form a new coalition and may seek another two weeks if he fails to complete the mission by then.
In his letter of appointment to Haniyeh, Abbas said the new government must "commit itself to achieving the higher goals and interests of the Palestinian people." The letter also urged the future government to "fully respect previous resolutions of the Palestine National Council, Arab summits and the United Nations, as well as agreements signed by the PLO."
Despite Haniyeh's resignation, Fatah and Hamas have yet to resolve a new crisis that has erupted over the distribution of cabinet portfolios. Abbas and Haniyeh avoided mentioning the crisis in their joint press conference in Gaza City, but their aides said joint Fatah-Hamas committees would start working as of Thursday night to reach an agreement on the make-up of the coalition.
The main dispute centers on the identities of the interior minister and deputy prime minister. Under the terms of the Mecca agreement, Fatah has the right to name one of its representatives as deputy prime minister. But the appointment must be approved by Hamas. Hamas, for its part, is entitled to name the interior minister - a move that has to be approved by Fatah.
Hamas leaders have made it clear that they will not accept Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan as Haniyeh's No. 2. Abbas is said to be opposed to Hamas's candidate for the Interior Ministry, Hamoudeh Jarwan.
Haniyeh's resignation came amid reports of a severe crisis that threatened to sabotage the unity government agreement that was reached under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. Hamas officials said Haniyeh had set conditions for his resignation. He demanded, among other things, that Abbas approve a series of appointments and decisions made by the outgoing government.
Earlier, Fatah and Hamas representatives met in Gaza City and agreed to form joint committees to resolve disputes, including those on the identity of the new interior minister and the dismissal of 350 security officers suspected of being affiliated with Hamas.
"President Abbas and Prime Minister Haniyeh will meet in the coming days to discuss the problem of the Interior Ministry," said Fatah spokesman Abdel Hakim Awad. "As for the officers who were fired, it was agreed that the case of each one of them will be examined individually. We agreed that the members of the security forces should not be affiliated with any political faction."
The two parties also agreed to form a joint committee that will pave the way for Hamas to join the PLO. According to Awad, the issue will be on the agenda of next month's meeting of the various PLO groups in Damascus.