RAMALLAH, West Bank, (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, declaring the atmosphere “not fully ripe,” shunned officials from the Islamic militant Hamas group on Sunday, dealing a setback to the new Palestinian government’s efforts to win international recognition.
Ban’s comments came on a day of high-profile diplomacy, with the U.N. chief and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both in the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Both hope their clout will help to prod the two sides to start talking peace again.
Hamas, branded a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, joined the more moderate Fatah Party in a coalition government last week. The bitter rivals have expressed hope their alliance would end international isolation of the previous hard-line Hamas government.
U.S. and European diplomats have held a stream of contacts with moderate members of the new coalition while avoiding Hamas ministers.
While welcoming the new government’s formation, Ban said “the atmosphere is not fully ripe” for talks with Hamas, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
Speaking after a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, Ban said he hoped the new government would “show a genuine commitment to the basic principles … of peace.”
The “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia — have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept past peace agreements.
The new government platform falls short of the conditions, though moderate Palestinians say it implicitly recognizes Israel by “respecting” peace agreements. Abbas, who hopes to restart peace talks with Israel, has said the deal is the best he can get from Hamas.
Palestinian officials rejected the notion of diplomatic cherry-picking.
“This government is one team,” Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said. “Whoever meets with one member is meeting with the whole government.”
Hamas and Fatah agreed to their alliance last week in the hope of halting deadly Palestinian infighting and persuading the West and Israel to resume crucial funding cut off after Hamas swept parliamentary elections a year ago.
Because the new coalition does not meet the international conditions, Israel immediately said it would continue its boycott and urged the international community to follow suit.
World powers — encouraged by the presence of Fatah and independent ministers in the Palestinian Cabinet lineup — have ended the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic isolation. But with the exception of a senior Norwegian official, none has met with Hamas Cabinet members, and the withheld funding has not been restored.
Ban’s comments indicated the challenges the Palestinians still face in selling their government to the West.
“I expect that with this formation of the national unity government, the leaders of this government will abide by the principles laid out by the Quartet,” he said. He said the principles represent “the international community.”
Ban is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday. He said he would urge the Israeli leader to release frozen Palestinian funds, ease travel restrictions in Palestinian areas and halt settlement activity in the West Bank.
In unusually blunt criticism, Olmert said Abbas “blatantly violated” a promise to free a captive Israeli soldier before forming the new national unity government.
“We can’t ignore the fact that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority blatantly violated a series of commitments to Israel, especially the commitment that no national unity government would be formed before Gilad Shalit’s release,” Olmert said.
Shalit was captured by Hamas-linked militants in June 2006 and is believed to be held in the Gaza Strip. His condition is unknown.
Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said Abbas never promised to release Shalit before forming the government.
“I think Mr. Olmert is misleading the world community and his own people,” Barghouti said.
Israel, he maintained, was responsible for the delay in Shalit’s release because it was not “dealing seriously” with Palestinian offers of a prisoner exchange.
The traded accusations came ahead of a key Arab summit in Saudi Arabia this week where officials are expected to revive a 2002 Saudi proposal for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world. Israel rejected the Saudi plan when it was first raised, but has shown interest in it recently.
The Saudi plan calls for full diplomatic relations between the Arab world and the Jewish state in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
The U.N. chief started his day Sunday visiting the Aida refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem and inspecting Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank.
Israel says it built the enclosure to keep out Palestinian militants, who have killed hundreds of Israelis in bombing and shooting attacks. Palestinians oppose the route of the barrier, which places some 10 percent of the West Bank on the “Israeli” side.
“This is a very sad and tragic thing to see many suffering from the construction of this wall, depriving opportunities for basic living,” Ban said.