U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves late Friday on a Middle East mission she admits has been complicated by last week's Mecca agreement between the main Palestinian factions for a unity government. The deal has clouded prospects for Congressional approval of a Bush administration plan to aid security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration's strategy has been to try to strengthen the hand of the relatively-moderate Mr. Abbas in his power struggle with the radical Islamic Hamas movement, which is listed by the United States as a terrorist group.
However, last week's Saudi-brokered agreement, under which Mr. Abbas' mainstream Fatah movement will form a unity government with Hamas, has raised questions about the administration's approach, and put its plan to aid the Abbas-run security forces under new jeopardy in Congress.
In Congressional testimony before her departure for the Middle East and a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Rice said she understood the imperative of ending the intra-Palestinian conflict. But she said that must not mean the abandonment of the Palestinian Authority chief's commitment to peace with Israel:
"I can't say to them that it was wrong to try to stop Palestinians from killing Palestinian children," she said.
"I can't say that to them. But what I can say to them is that the result of Mecca cannot be that the United States is expected to support the security forces that are not clearly on the side of the 'road map,' the President's two-state solution, the Quartet principles, and so forth."
The Bush administration proposed the $86 million package late last year to support an effort by U.S. military envoy Major General Keith Dayton to upgrade forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority chief.
But the new head of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls the State Department budget, New York Democrat Nita Lowey, put a hold on the money even before the Mecca agreement.
During Rice's appearance before the panel Friday, another New York Democrat, Steve Israel, said, in the wake of the Palestinian power-sharing deal, there is broad bipartisan support for withholding the funds.
"I might have been able to support $86 million for the Palestinian Authority to enhance its security capability, so that it could enforce peace agreements that it negotiated with Israel," he said. "I would be hard-pressed to support funding for a Palestinian Authority that uses taxpayer dollars from the United States to attack and provoke an American ally."
Rice said she would report back to the subcommittee after her talks in the region as to whether the administration plan remains viable. For now, she said, she still believes in the wisdom of supporting Mr. Abbas.
"I don't know what will ultimately become of the Palestinian unity government," she said. "I do know that, if Hamas has strong forces and Mahmoud Abbas does not, that's not good for the United States, that's not good for the Palestinians and it's most certainly not good for Israel."
Rice is to hold separate meetings Sunday with Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then convene the three-way meeting with the two men on Monday.
The secretary says it will be an informal discussion of what a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict will entail, the first of its kind in six years.
Rice's hope is that bringing focus to the so-called "political horizon" for the Palestinians will help Mr. Abbas and reduce the influence of Hamas, which rejects peace talks with, and recognition of, Israel.
Later next week, she meets Arab officials in Amman, and then goes to Berlin for a meeting Wednesday of the international diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East, which also includes the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.