- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Russia urged the United States and Europe yesterday to end a boycott of the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government, exposing divisions in the group of international mediators known as the Quartet as it met in Washington in an effort to restart Middle East peace talks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted the meeting at the State Department on a day when fighting in the Gaza Strip raged between Hamas and the rival Fatah party, claiming at least 17 lives on the deadliest day thus far in a violent power struggle.

“We expressed our concern about events on the ground in the Palestinian territories,” Miss Rice told reporters. “Obviously, innocent people are being caught up in this violence, and it needs to stop.”

The Quartet — consisting of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — expressed support for Washington’s initiative to begin talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also leads Fatah.

Miss Rice, who is expected to visit the Middle East later this month, plans to convene a three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr. Abbas, although the date and place have yet to be announced.

But at a press conference after yesterday’s meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. and EU policy of boycotting Hamas is not working.

“I don’t think that to resolve this problem — just like any problem that exists in the world — you could do it through boycott and isolation,” he said. “We are convinced that it is necessary to work with Hamas to try to influence their position, so that Hamas would accept the principles formulated by the Quartet.”

The United States and European Union refuse to speak directly with Hamas officials in the Palestinian government and have cut off most international aid to the Palestinians until Hamas renounces violence, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and accepts previous Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state.

Russia will continue its contacts with Hamas because it “received support from the Palestinian people during the elections a year ago,” Mr. Lavrov said.

A senior U.S. official, responding to Mr. Lavrov’s comments, acknowledged that the Quartet does not have a “uniform contact policy” on Hamas. Asked if Russian influence has helped so far, the official said that Hamas is less comfortable saying “no,” although it is not yet saying “yes.”

The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Mr. Lavrov also said that Syria can play a “constructive role” as a mediator between Fatah and Hamas, but Miss Rice countered that “there is no need for [Syria’s] mediation.”

In Gaza yesterday, Fatah and Hamas gunmen attacked two universities and a radio station and each other on the streets. At least 24 persons died and about 250 were wounded in a 24-hour period since a cease-fire collapsed Thursday. Another cease-fire was arranged late yesterday.

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