(www.latwp.com) - The Bush administration's latest Middle East peace initiative, which begins this weekend, is taking place under a cloud of uncertainty because of Israeli anxieties about the complexion of a proposed Palestinian unity government.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will lead an American push to bring together Israeli and Palestinian leaders for the first talks in six years about the eventual shape of the long-promised independent Palestinian state.
But hopes for the U.S. mission have dimmed amid Israeli worries that a new Palestinian government, while including more moderates, may not go far enough in rejecting the views of the militant Hamas party leaders who also will play a central role. Many Israelis have indicated they would be reluctant to try to work with such a government.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared his intentions to cooperate Thursday, but Israeli cabinet officials and other commentators have spoken pessimistically about the gathering, while some Palestinian officials have expressed their own doubts, reports Trend.
Rice acknowledged Thursday that the peace mission was ``obviously more complicated because of the uncertainties surrounding the national unity government.'' But she signaled that the United States would continue to push for progress by working through its primary ally, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even if U.S. officials dislike the new Palestinian government.
``In the Middle East, if you wait for the perfect circumstances, you will never take the airplane,'' Rice said.
Under the Palestinian government structure, the president's office is separate from the administrative branches that will be overseen by the new ruling coalition. The U.S. could still provide aid and political support to Abbas even if the administration decides it cannot do business with the remainder of the government.
Rice will meet over the weekend in bilateral sessions with Olmert and Abbas, and all three will meet in Jerusalem on Monday.
Rice's mission is built around the idea that by renewing discussions of the Palestinian state, she can illustrate to Palestinians the advantages of choosing a moderate path rather than the violent resistance espoused by Hamas. The administration also is eager to show allied Arab governments that it can make progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues, in hopes of strengthening their cooperation in stabilizing Iraq and resisting the influence of Iran.
But the politically weak Olmert government has been unenthusiastic about peacemaking overtures that could build pressure for Israeli concessions and weaken its political position.
Many Israelis have been wary of the new Palestinian government, announced Feb. 8 in Mecca, even though it will incorporate moderate and pro-Western Palestinian figures.
Abbas, who is eager to have world powers resume direct aid to the Palestinian government, points out that the Mecca deal commits the government to respect previous agreements. But critics say the Palestinians are not supporting the three principles called for by the diplomatic quartet of the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia: recognizing Israel, repudiating violence, and observing past agreements.
Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged Olmert to cancel the three-way talks in light of the Mecca agreement.
While Olmert has agreed to go ahead with the talks, Israeli officials in Jerusalem say he does not want to engage in detailed negotiations until he learns directly from Abbas about the power-sharing deal. To start with, he plans to demand the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in June and is being held by Hamas.
``I think we will have a tough situation to convince Israel to deal with a unity government,'' said Abbas aide Nabil Amr. ``But what can we do? This is what we achieved in Mecca.''
There were news reports, attributed to Abbas aides, that U.S. officials have privately told Palestinian officials that they would not recognize the new government. U.S. officials denied the claim.
There are also risks that the new government will not survive long.
On Thursday, the cabinet of the former Hamas government formally resigned, a procedural step required to the open the way for the new team. But some observers believe the many unresolved issues, and the recent bloodshed between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party, will make the new government inherently fragile.
A U.S. official defended the decision to go ahead with the talks.
``What happens to the government is important, but it doesn't change the ability, or the rationale, of Abbas engaging with the prime minister,'' the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``Can anyone argue that this will make less sense than it did when Hamas led the government?''
U.S. officials continue to play down their expectations for the three-way meeting, saying that they are beginning as informal discussions.
``Whether this leads to something bigger and grander, we'll just have to see,'' said the U.S. official.