Thursday, October 5, 2006
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed Thursday to secure a pledge from Israel to ease restrictions on the beleaguered Palestinian territories as she ended a visit to the occupied territories. Washington's top diplomat left Israel without making any public statement following meetings with her Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. She had been expected to announce "progress" on Israeli restrictions on crossings into the Gaza Strip at the tail end of her trip, aimed in part at boosting Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the face of the ruling Hamas movement. Boosting Abbas against Hamas is seen by observers as a move by the US to further inflame the situation in occupied Palestine. Washington and the European Union cut aids to the Palestinian people when Hamas democratically achieved a landslide victory on the Fatah movement, in parliamentary elections last March. During her dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Rice also failed to get Israel to agree to release customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority that the Jewish state has been withholding since before Hamas took office. According to the World Bank, the customs duties amounted to 65 million dollars a month in 2005, or two-thirds of the Palestinian government's budget. The withholding of the revenue, along with a Western freeze on direct aid since Hamas took office, has wrought havoc on the Palestinian territories, prompting warnings from the United Nations of a humanitarian disaster. On Wednesday, Rice met with Abbas in Ramallah, where the duo presented a united front, saying any Palestinian government should respect the peace principles set out by the so-called Middle East quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations. Abbas, locked in a standoff with Hamas over a platform for a national unity government, said any future cabinet would have to abide by past peace deals -- one of the key Western demands to which Hamas refuses to accede. He reiterated that stalled talks with Hamas on forming a unity government could not go on forever and warned that "the Palestinian leadership will decide on the measures to take to get us out of this crisis." Hamas has so far refused immense pressure to soften its stance and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya accused Washington of being interested only in reshaping the region to fit its interests.