The United States Friday announced a new policy on contacts with Palestinians that, as expected, bars dealings with officials of Palestinian government agencies that are controlled by Hamas. U.S. contacts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his staff will continue.
The Bush administration had made clear in advance that it would have no dealings with Hamas cabinet ministers because of the organization's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist and embrace international terms for Middle East peace-making.
But the refined policy goes somewhat beyond a flat ban on U.S. contacts with Hamas officials, also barring contacts with officials of Palestinian government ministries regardless of their affiliation.
The new ground rules for contacts with Palestinians, resulting from a policy review here, were sent out by cable Thursday to the American Consulate-General in Jerusalem, which handles dealings with the Palestinians, and to U.S. embassies in the region.
State Department Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli acknowledged at a news briefing that the ban might hamper the work of U.S. diplomats.
But he said it is a constraint imposed by Hamas, because of its refusal to endorse a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, and he stressed that it would not completely end U.S. dialogue with the Palestinians.
"We will work with individuals and organizations that: a) are not affiliated with Hamas, b) are not part of the cabinet or ministries that come under the authority of Hamas," he said. "That leaves room to talk to a lot of people. Obviously there are a lot of people we can't talk to now, but again that's a constraint imposed upon us by, unfortunately, decisions by a government that continues to advocate terror."
The Palestinian cabinet headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and endorsed by the Palestinian legislature Tuesday is made up entirely of Hamas members and independents allied to the militant Islamic organization.
While that rules out U.S. contact with the Haniyeh government, spokesman Ereli said American diplomats may still deal with Palestinian Authority chief Abbas, his staff, and officials in agencies directly under his authority.
They further can have dealings with non-Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and with non-Hamas Palestinian municipal officials.
In addition, the State Department will continue contacts with the Palestinian mission in Washington, which technically reports to the Palestine Liberation Organization and not the foreign ministry.
The new policy was announced as two senior U.S. envoys continued contacts in the region on the situation following the seating of the Palestinian cabinet and Tuesday's Israeli elections.
White House Middle East policy chief Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch have held talks with, among others, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert and former Palestinian cabinet member Saeb Erekat.
The two envoys are to attend an expert-level meeting in Amman Sunday of the international Middle East "Quartet," which also includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
The Quartet issued a statement Thursday noting "with grave concern" that Hamas had not heeded its appeal of last January 30 to commit to principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous Palestinian agreements and obligations including the Quartet's 2003 peace "road map."
Spokesman Ereli said the meeting in the Jordanian capital would examine ways the Quartet can continue efforts toward a two-state settlement of the conflict given the "new reality" on the ground.
He also said they would discuss how to continue humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while by-passing Hamas-controlled ministries.
The Bush administration says the assumption of power by Hamas, a group listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, means the end of direct U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.
But it says it intends to increase humanitarian aid, which has traditionally been channeled through the United Nations and non-governmental groups.