- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt I Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is resisting intensive lobbying from European officials to recognize a Palestinian unity government that includes the militant group Hamas, U.S. and European diplomats said.

The issue is likely to shadow a donors’ conference in Egypt to support the people of Gaza in the aftermath of Israel‘s recent offensive against the Hamas-controlled territory, as donors find it difficult to send aid without dealing with Hamas.

The conference begins Monday, with the United States expected to offer $900 million toward a goal of $2.8 billion in pledges for Gaza’s reconstruction.

In recent days, several European officials have tried to persuade Mrs. Clinton to show some flexibility in the Obama administration’s conditions for accepting a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, diplomats said.

Those officials include European Union External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, both of whom met with Mrs. Clinton in Washington on Friday.

Mrs. Clinton has refused that approach, urging the Europeans to avoid giving the impression that there is daylight between the United States and Europe, officials said.

“The secretary made it very clear that it’s important we don’t send mixed signals to Hamas,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters traveling with Mrs. Clinton to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, the site of the Gaza conference.

The Europeans still support the three conditions endorsed by international peace mediators known as the Quartet - that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state - before the West deals with it. The Quartet comprises the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

However, the Europeans said having one government representing all Palestinians is essential for addressing the humanitarian needs of Gazans and the strip’s reconstruction. It also is important for the peace process, they added, so that any agreement with Israel be accepted by all Palestinian factions.

Egyptian-sponsored talks between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas to form a unity government have produced no results so far.

Despite Mrs. Clinton’s resistance to the European Union’s lobbying efforts, there were signs that U.S. officials are exploring options for Washington’s tacit acceptance of a unity government. One options would be for any Cabinet ministers from Hamas to agree to the three conditions, even if the group as a whole does not.

“If the members of the government accept the Quartet principles, even if they are from Hamas, then there might be an opportunity to engage them,” one senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group. Hamas’ military ouster of the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007 makes it difficult for both to send aid to the territory’s 1.5 million people.

The European Union’s need for a solution to the Palestinian leadership crisis is linked to the large financial contributions Europeans have given for Gaza’s reconstruction in the past, only to have the results of those efforts reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes.

“Indeed, the feeling is there in Europe that the Israelis destroy and Europe pays, and we have to be careful that the European taxpayer is not only doing that,” the European Union’s Mrs. Waldner told a small group of reporters after her meeting with Mrs. Clinton in Washington.

Mrs. Clinton’s trip include stops in Israel and the West Bank.

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed Sunday to respond “severely” to continuing rocket fire from Gaza, after several rockets hit southern Israel over the weekend.

“If the rocket fire from Gaza continues, we will hit back severely, so much so that the terrorist organizations will understand that Israel is not ready to resign itself to this,” Mr. Olmert said at the weekly Cabinet meeting. “Defense Minister Ehud Barak will give directions so that Israeli forces bring calm to southern Israel.”

Israel launched its January offensive against Gaza in response to rocket fire. Since fighting stopped in mid-January, Israel says it has been hit by more than 100 rockets.

The Palestinians are seeking about $2.8 billion at Monday’s conference, but donations are expected to fall short of that amount.

Mrs. Clinton will pledge about $900 million, about a third of which will be used for the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza, Mr. Wood said. The rest will go to the Palestinian Authority to help with its budget shortfall and other projects, which could include Gaza and the West Bank.

“Hamas is not getting any of this money,” Mr. Wood said.

Mrs. Waldner said she will pledge about $554 million for humanitarian aid and Gaza’s “early recovery,” including removing rubble and supplying fuel and drinking water.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, visited Gaza on Sunday.

Mrs. Waldner also said she urged Mrs. Clinton to press the Israelis to open more crossings into Gaza allow more goods.

“We have been pushing. We have written two or three letters - the Czech [EU] presidency, Javier Solana and myself - and we haven’t seen the whole result,” she said. “We’d like the Israelis to go further. There are approximately 200 trucks entering the Gaza Strip, but there should be approximately 500-600 a day.”

Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Israel late Monday, but with the absence of a new government there, she is not likely to win specific commitments on access to Gaza or the peace process.

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