Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Rice, on Tour, Finds Egypt Unreceptive to Hamas Aid Cutoff

By JOEL BRINKLEY
The New York Times
February 22, 2006

CAIRO, Feb. 21 — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday began a four-day visit to the Middle East, where she hoped to persuade Arab leaders to cut off financial aid to Hamas. But she ran into trouble on her very first stop.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, told her that Egypt believed funds to the Palestinian government should continue for an indefinite period, to give Hamas "time to develop their own ideas." Egypt gives little if any money to the Palestinians. Still, Washington considers Cairo's view to be influential, one reason Ms. Rice stopped here first.

"The Egyptians," a senior administration official said, "carry significant weight with the Palestinians and are watched by the rest of the Arab world." Administration officials said they had hoped that Egypt would back the American position.

Egypt's refusal to endorse the aid cutoff follows European misgivings and statements of concern late last week about cutting off funds and could significantly complicate Ms. Rice's mission.

Another of Ms. Rice's major goals for this trip — to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — is to lock down commitments from the Arab leaders to stand firm against Iran's nuclear program. But once again, Egypt disappointed her.

Standing next to Ms. Rice at a news conference, Mr. Gheit reiterated a view Egypt offered during talks at the United Nations nuclear agency early this month over reporting Iran to the Security Council. Mr. Gheit said Egypt supported applying the same standard to all Middle East nations, not just Iran. That was a well-understood reference to Israel's secret nuclear weapons program.

The pressure on Israel is likely to be echoed by the other leaders Ms. Rice is to meet this week, including the foreign ministers of six Persian Gulf states who will be attending a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting while she is there. Egypt is the only one of those nations that has diplomatic relations with Israel; the other states generally hold more hostile views toward Israel.

Asked by an obviously sympathetic Egyptian journalist about the Egyptian formula for regional nuclear disarmament, Ms. Rice seemed to tilt her answer toward Israel when she said that "we all hope that one day the Middle East is peaceful enough that no one needs" nuclear weapons.

Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group responsible for dozens of suicide bomb attacks over the last few years, won the Palestinian elections last month and took control of the parliament last weekend. The United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which cooperate in the so-called quartet for Middle East peace, agreed last month to demand that Hamas recognize Israel, end terrorist attacks and accept previous diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States is insisting that all financial aid to the Palestinian government end if those conditions are not met by the time Hamas forms a new Palestinian government in the coming weeks. Israel takes an even tougher position. The Israeli government froze its tax and customs payments to the Palestinians, $50 million a month, almost as soon as the new Palestinian legislature met for the first time last weekend.

Mr. Gheit said Egypt believes Hamas should accept the quartet's three conditions but added, "We should give Hamas time." When pressed, he said he meant time beyond when a new government is formed, the American deadline, and he offered no later deadline.

The United States and its European allies have all promised to continue relief aid to Palestinians, delivered by the United Nations and other aid groups, even after a Hamas government takes power.

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