The United States said Monday that any new Palestinian unity government must embrace basic principles for international recognition, including accepting Israel's right to exist. The comments came amid reports Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic movement Hamas were close to a deal on a new cabinet.
Officials here are welcoming the efforts of the the politically-moderate Mr. Abbas to reach an accommodation with Hamas.
But they're also serving notice that a Palestinian unity government will have to accept terms set by the international Middle East Quartet if it hopes to escape the political isolation hampering the current Hamas-led government.
President Abbas traveled to Gaza Monday for talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, with whom an agreement was reportedly near on the creation of a unity government of independent experts not directly affiliated with the militant Islamic movement.
But news reports said the platform of the prospective government would be vague, and that it was unclear whether it would embrace principles for international acceptance set forth in January by the Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations.
Those include accepting Israel's right to exist, renouncing violence and endorsing past Palestinian agreements with Israel. State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters the United States is not backing away from that stance. "I don't think it will be a surprise to you to know that we still have the same basic position with regard to the Palestinian Authority. We would look forward to working with a Palestinian Authority government that governs responsibly and that's interested in making progress towards peace. And that means as a basic principle that that government needs to accept the measures outlined by the Quartet, the Quartet principles that we've discussed before," he said.
The United States supported the January elections in the West Bank and Gaza which Hamas won with a plurality vote over the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah.
Hamas was, and still is listed by the United States as a terrorist group. But chairing a meeting Monday of a new State Department advisory panel on democracy-promotion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States should not retreat from its advocacy of democracy, even when elections do not turn out well for U.S. interests.
Rice said thrusting Hamas into a position of governing may be more desirable than having it remain an exclusively violent opponent of regional peace efforts. "I'm not so sure that it is better to have these groups running the streets, masked, with guns, rather than having them have to face voters and having to deliver. So when I am told, well you know your Middle East policy has allowed Islamists to come to power, I think well, all right, so was the answer then that the people of the Middle East don't get to have a voice in who comes to power?," she said.
The Secretary of State said there have been steps both forward and backward in the process of democratic reform in Egypt, where the United States has been critical of government moves against former presidential candidate Ayman Nour and other opposition figures.
But she said she does not believe, and that her view is widely shared by Egyptians, that the country will ever go completely back to where it was before its first contested presidential election in 2004.
She said the kind of open debate in Egypt that began with the 2004 campaign can never really be "put back in a bottle."