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Rice, allies at odds on how to revive talks

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia praised Syria for helping to set up a key meeting between Palestinian leaders. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia praised Syria for helping to set up a key meeting between Palestinian leaders.

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and some US allies agreed yesterday to try to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but clashed over how to handle the Palestinian militant group Hamas and one of its key backers, Syria.

In a rare, public airing of differences between allies at a State Department news conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany argued in favor of engagement.

Rice, however, defended the US policy of shunning Syria and Hamas.

Steinmeier, who traveled to Syria in November, spoke in favor of including Syria in the effort to end the conflict, saying: "We are working for a comprehensive peace solution in the Middle East, and that means we have to engage other partners beyond Israel and Palestine."

Lavrov went further, praising Syria for helping last month to set up a key meeting between the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the moderate Fatah party, and his Damascus-based rival, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Hamas swept the parliamentary elections last year.

Hamas and Fatah have been trying to form a unity government, but their security forces remain at war.

Lavrov said the meeting improved the dialogue between the two groups .

He also said the international community should meet with Hamas to try to persuade the group to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by previous agreements made by the Palestinian Authority -- conditions set down a year ago by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, known as the Mideast Quartet.

The quartet cut off all funding to the Palestinian Authority following Hamas's election, starving the fledgling Palestinian government.

But after nearly a year, Hamas has still refused to meet the conditions.

"We are convinced that it is necessary to work with Hamas," Lavrov said, adding that it is not realistic "just to hope that [the conditions] would magically be implemented and would become part of Hamas's position."

But Rice would not budge on the US position toward Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, or Syria, which the United States has shunned since late 2004 over allegations that the country is a conduit for foreign fighters into Iraq.

"Syria doesn't need the United States to tell it what it could do to be a stabilizing force," Rice said, adding that she hoped Syria would decide on its own to play a positive role.

In a background briefing with reporters, a senior State Department official described efforts to engage Syria and Hamas as a "waste" of time.

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