US senators call for continued boycott of unity gov't

Letter signed by 79 senators says "it has been US policy not to have contact with that government nor provide aid directly to it."

As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with Palestinian Authority officials, senators are asking that she stand firm against the Hamas-led government even though it now includes Fatah members. "Since the election and installation of a Hamas-dominated Palestinian government, it has been US policy not to have contact with that government nor provide aid directly to it," reads a letter signed by 79 of the country's 100 senators on Friday. "We urge you to maintain current US policy with respect to the Palestinian government until it recognizes Israel's right to exist, renounces terror, and accepts previous agreements." The US has continued to withhold aid from the new unity government, but Bush administration representatives have met with non-Hamas cabinet ministers with a history of ties to the West. An earlier version of the letter suggested an even tougher no-contact policy, urging "no direct aid and no contact with any members of [the] Palestinian Authority." The revised language allows for more flexibility on contacts with the unity government. According to the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), who co-sponsored the letter with John Ensign (R-Nevada), the letter was rewritten to address concerns that it could have been interpreted as a call to cut off ties to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other members of the government. The new letter, according to a Nelson staffer, "clears up any misperception concerning a change in US policy. The letter reaffirms and urges maintaining current US policy with respect to the Palestinian government." AIPAC, which lobbied for the letter during its annual policy conference earlier in this month, welcomed the broad support it gleaned. "Congress remains committed to the ensuring that no American taxpayer dollars go to support a terrorist-led Palestinian government," said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block. AIPAC also rejected the assertion that the original draft would have meant a bar on contacts with Abbas. But Americans for Peace Now, which had pressed senators not to sign the first version of the letter, was pleased that it had been revised. "We're satisfied that Senators Nelson and Ensign did change the language [and] that the administration is sticking to its former policy of having contacts both with President Abbas and with members of the new government who are committed to a two-state solution," said APN spokesman Ori Nir. "We hope that the letter would be read both on the Hill and in the administration not as a call to ban such contacts in the future."