- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The United States will not wait for Palestinians to agree on a unity government or to hold elections in order to push for a renewed peace effort with Israel and will step up its support for President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

She also said that the chief mission of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East in the next two years will be to strengthen the “alignment” of moderate forces so they can take on extremists who have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years.

“I would not overstate the importance of a national unity government to the possibility for progress” in the Palestinian territories, Miss Rice told several newspaper reporters at a year-end roundtable.

“We are pushing forward on helping [Mr. Abbas] with reconstruction and security forces — that’s not dependent on a national unity government being formed,” she said, referring to tens of millions of dollars the Bush administration plans to give the president’s office.

The United States is also working on facilitating a meeting between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and a unity government is not a condition for that, either, the secretary said.

Since the militant group Hamas won January’s parliamentary election and formed a government, both the United States and Israel have said that progress on the peace process cannot be achieved because they lack a partner for peace.

But now that the negotiations between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah faction have failed and the president’s call for early elections have met resistance from Hamas, the administration is looking for realistic options to deal with the issue, U.S. officials said.

“The presidency is a responsible Palestinian voice,” Miss Rice said.

She said the negotiations “failed for the right reasons,” because Mr. Abbas “refused to accept a national unity government that was not going to be internationally acceptable.” Still, she added, the Palestinians have to find a solution to their political crisis.

Also yesterday, masked gunmen from Hamas and Fatah continued another day of street battles in Gaza City that left six Palestinians dead and sent children scurrying for cover, even as political leaders were renewing calls for a halt in violence.

Mr. Olmert paid a surprise visit to Jordan to discuss with King Abdullah II ways to restart peace negotiations with Mr. Abbas.

As Egypt renewed its effort to mediate a solution to the fighting, the king offered to host both Hamas and Fatah leaders in Jordan to reconcile the two political groups.

Against the backdrop of violence, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas tried to remind Palestinians that their struggle should be focused toward Israel rather than at each other.

“In spite of the internal disputes, in spite of the wounds created by these disputes, and in spite of the pain of the recent days, we will remain united against the occupation — and won’t be involved with its internal struggles,” he said.

One early-morning clash that spilled into Gaza’s Shifa Hospital left one Hamas militia member dead and up to 11 injured. Gunbattles erupted near Mr. Abbas’ residence and near Gaza’s Shati refugee camp.

By late evening, the daily toll of casualties numbered four Fatah militia men and two from Hamas.

Television footage showed children with backpacks running cautiously through the Gaza streets as gunfire erupted in the background.

On Monday night, Hamas gunmen kidnapped a former Cabinet minister from the Fatah party, a move that spurred a wave of abductions of Hamas members as retaliation by Fatah loyalists. Within an hour and half, the Hamas militants released the Fatah politician.

• Nicholas Kralev reported from Washington and Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv.

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