JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – A senior U.S. diplomat met Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad on Tuesday, denting Israel’s drive to keep an international boycott of the new Palestinian unity government in place.
Fayyad’s meeting with U.S. Consul-General Jacob Walles was the first contact between a U.S. official and a minister in the coalition cabinet formed on Saturday by the Islamist Hamas movement and the rival secular Fatah faction.
Trying to stop any erosion of the diplomatic boycott, Israel cancelled a planned meeting with Norway’s deputy foreign minister after he held talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, Israeli officials said.
The United States, breaking with Israel, has said it might hold unofficial contacts with non-Hamas ministers. Britain and some other European countries have taken a similar line.
Fayyad, an independent, confirmed the encounter with Walles in an interview aired on Al Jazeera television. A spokeswoman for the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem declined to comment.
A Western-backed reformer, Fayyad runs the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s finances in addition to his ministerial duties.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has vowed to shun the entire unity government, saying its platform does not meet three conditions set by the Quartet of foreign mediators last year that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals.
Fayyad said his aim in meeting the U.S. diplomat was to seek ways “to lift the unjust siege imposed on us”, a reference to Western aid sanctions imposed after Hamas came to power last year following its defeat of Fatah in a parliamentary election.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Monday there would be no change in the aid embargo unless the new government met the conditions set by the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
The ban on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority has meant that for the past year it has been unable to pay in full its 161,000 employees, who support about a million Palestinians, deepening poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials said they had scrapped a meeting with Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen under a policy instituted after Hamas won power last year.
Johansen visited Haniyeh on Gaza on Monday, becoming the first Western government official to engage directly with the Hamas leadership since the formation of the unity cabinet. His visit came three days after Norway urged Israel and the international community to work with Haniyeh’s new government and release frozen funds to Palestinian authorities. “Foreign dignitaries who meet with the Hamas leadership will not have meetings with Israeli officials. This was a decision taken in 2006,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “By recognising an unreformed extremist, you are reinforcing that extremism.”
Johansen said he regretted the Israeli decision and hoped it would be temporary. “We do not think that boycotting and not being engaged is helpful. We think that will not lead to tolerance and acceptance and negotiations,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Johansen said he had told the Palestinian government it must follow through on its commitments to peace. “There is still a long way to go, so we have to continue to encourage them to make progress on the ground, improve security and renounce violence,” he said. Norway helped to broker the 1993 Oslo accords which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. The agreement later collapsed amid renewed violence.