Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Paris backs Palestinian coalition

SIGNIFICANT BOOST The French foreign minister pledged support for the joint Hamas-Fatah government and vowed to work toward a resumption of stalled aid


France has pledged to cooperate with a coalition Palestinian government that would include the militant Hamas, in a key boost for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Abbas' European tour failed to make headway on resuming aid for his struggling people.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's promise on Saturday to work with a government including Hamas and the moderate Fatah party was the bright spot in Abbas' four-country swing through Europe this week. Other European leaders were more cautious, preferring to wait until the government is formed before making any commitments.

"I encouraged Mr. Abbas to persevere in his efforts to quickly form a national unity government," Douste-Blazy told reporters on Saturday evening as Abbas wrapped up his trip.

If the government is formed according to the power-sharing deal worked out in Mecca last month, Douste-Blazy said, "France will be ready to cooperate with it. And our country will plead on its behalf within the European Union and with other partners in the international community."

Abbas welcomed the pledge -- yet it may mean little. It was unclear how far France could go in supporting the Palestinians without the backing of the rest of the EU or other members of the Quartet working for Mideast peace: the US, the UN and Russia.

Douste-Blazy made no commitments on freeing up aid that is key to the Palestinians' future. Half of the Palestinian Authority's budget came from foreign assistance until much of it was frozen following Hamas election victory a year ago. The EU, US and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Throughout Abbas' trip, Europe's governments remained firm: Any new coalition government must recognize Israel before aid can flow again.

Abbas made a last push on Saturday in talks in Paris. He traveled to London, Berlin and Brussels before coming to France.

"We hope that the embargo will be lifted," Abbas said after meeting French President Jacques Chirac. "If not, all we can undertake would be useless ... and the Palestinian people would continue to suffer and the sanctions would continue to cause damage."

European leaders cautiously welcomed the power-sharing deal between Hamas and Fatah, an effort to halt clashes between the two that have left more than 130 dead since May. The calm that accompanied the deal appeared threatened, however, by shootings late on Friday and early Saturday that killed four and wounded 37.

The power-sharing deal has stymied Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, since Israel has ruled out talks on a final peace deal with Abbas if he goes ahead with plans for a coalition with Hamas.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the EU's presidency, insisted after meeting Abbas that a new unity government must recognize Israel if direct aid is to be resumed.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Abbas in Brussels that the union will not make a decision on aid until a new government has taken office. The EU has said the funds will only be paid if the new government is committed to peace with Israel.

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