- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Coalition talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant group Hamas have stalled over U.S. demands that a national unity government recognize Israel, Palestinian officials said yesterday.

The suspension of negotiations underscores the difficulty that Mr. Abbas is having in trying to get Hamas to soften its anti-Israel ideology, a move that would pave the way to ending international sanctions that are crippling the Palestinian economy.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, said they were making progress in talks to win the release of an Israeli soldier captured three months ago by Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip. That attack sparked an Israeli offensive in Gaza that further worsened the plight of Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas will use a meeting this week with President Bush on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York to try to win U.S. support for a coalition that doesn’t fully meet international demands for a changed stance on Israel, Palestinian officials said.

They said he would warn that failure to work out a unity government could lead to a Palestinian civil war.

Still, some Palestinian officials wondered whether Mr. Abbas and Hamas can bridge their differences.

“What’s the point of forming a government if this government is saying that it won’t recognize agreements signed with Israel?” asked Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant. “The whole point is to break the deadlock in the peace process and bring an end to the siege.”

The so-called Quartet of Middle East peacemakers — the U.S., European Union, Russia and United Nations — insist that Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements before aid can resume.

Hamas has long sought Israel’s destruction, with its followers killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings. But the group caved in to months of economic sanctions and announced last week that it would form a coalition government with Mr. Abbas’ more moderate Fatah Party.

The Hamas Cabinet resigned Wednesday, and Mr. Abbas said the Palestinian Authority’s 165,000 civil servants would be paid in the coming days. The employees have not been paid their full salaries since Hamas took control of the government in March.

But the current platform for the planned unity government falls short of the requirements set by the West to restore the flow of money, and Hamas leaders said they would not compromise any further.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said yesterday that the group would not recognize past peace deals despite the international pressure.

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