The Middle East "Quartet" Wednesday welcomed Palestinian efforts to form a unity government that would meet international terms for engagement with the Palestinian Authority. The meeting of the four diplomatic partners - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - followed a New York meeting of President Bush and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Quartet has given its formal blessing to Palestinian efforts at a national unity government, while also extending a temporary financing mechanism that has channeled humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while bypassing the Hamas-led government.
The announcement came in a statement by the four diplomatic partners that followed a closed-door ministerial-level meeting at the United Nations.
The participants, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, cancelled a joint press appearance, citing schedule complications.
Their written communiqué welcomed efforts by President Abbas to form a government of national unity, in hope, they said, that the platform of such a government would "reflect Quartet principles" and allow for early engagement.
The four parties halted direct aid to the Palestinian Authority early this year when the militant Islamic Hamas movement won Palestinian elections and formed a government that refused to explicitly accept Quartet terms for recognition, including renouncing terrorism, and accepting Israel's right to exist.
Thus far, Hamas has been unwilling to embrace anything more than an implicit recognition of Israel as a negotiating partner, spawning debate within the Quartet about terms of a unity government platform that might be acceptable.
At a news briefing earlier Wednesday, the White House National Security Council's Middle East policy chief, Elliott Abrams, said he hoped the Palestinian unity efforts succeed. But he also said if a new Palestinian cabinet did not accept the Quartet criteria, the U.S. boycott of the Palestinian Authority will not change.
The United States and its diplomatic partners have continued dialogue with President Abbas of the mainstream Fatah movement. President Bush, ending three days of U.N.-related meetings, met with him Wednesday morning at his New York Hotel.
The president hailed what he said was Mr. Abbas' courage in trying to fulfill the political vision many Palestinians have for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict:
"I fully understand that in order to achieve this vision, there must be leaders willing to speak out and act on behalf of people who yearn for peace, and you are such a leader, Mr. President," he said. "I can't thank you enough for the courage you have shown. I assure you that our government wants to work with you, in order so that you're able, capable of delivering the vision that so many Palestinians long for."
For his part, Mr. Abbas said more than 70 percent of the Palestinians believe in a two-state solution, but he also cited the "dire" economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza, in large part due to the cutoff of outside governmental aid.
The Quartet statement called for a three-month extension of a temporary mechanism set up by the European Union that channels aid to Palestinians while bypassing the Hamas-led government.
It also encouraged Israel to transfer, via the bypass mechanism, some $500 million in Palestinian tax and customs revenue that it has been withholding to keep the money out of Hamas' hands.
The four powers, in implicit criticism of Israel, also appealed for full implementation of an agreement negotiated by Secretary of State Rice last November on freer movement of goods and people between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel has largely maintained a closure of Gaza, the home base of most Hamas leaders, including the current prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.