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U.S. ends economic, political embargo on Palestinian government, helping Abbas

    WASHINGTON — The Bush administration lifted its economic and diplomatic embargo on the Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, trying to solidify his hold on power after a stunning advance by a rival group claiming to represent the Palestinians.
    The move to resume direct aid payments to the cash-strapped Palestinian government in the West Bank follows expulsion of the militant Hamas movement from the governing coalition. It is meant to help Palestinian President Abbas in his political and military struggle against Hamas, which has set up a competing government in the Gaza Strip.
    As a first step, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will ask Congress to rework an existing $86 million aid request for the Abbas-led government. At the same time, she announced a separate $40 million contribution to United Nations relief for Palestinian refugees, a gesture to the 1.5 million Palestinians living in increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza.
    ‘‘We are not going to countenance that somehow ... the Palestinians are divisible,’’ Rice told reporters. ‘‘We’re not going to abandon the Palestinians who are living in Gaza.’’
    The cash to Abbas’ government will help him meet his payroll and could improve his standing with Palestinian voters, but he remains weak. Although the Bush administration has made a point of saying that Abbas remains the leader for all Palestinians, the near-total division of the two Palestinian territories means he can fully speak for only about half his more than 3 million people.
    President Bush spoke with Abbas by telephone and endorsed his decision to dissolve the government, swear in an emergency cabinet and outlaw the militia forces of Hamas. Emboldened by quick and broad international support over the weekend, Abbas told Bush that now is the moment to renew Mideast peace talks.
    The swift changes in the Palestinian territories are expected to be a major topic for Bush’s meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert said Monday he wants to support Abbas, something the Bush administration had been pushing long before the latest Palestinian government upheaval.
    Rice also spoke on Monday to the new Palestinian prime minister. Salam Fayyad, an international banker with credentials as a supporter of peace, was installed Sunday following the dissolution of the coalition government between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah Party. Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas insists he still holds the top job.
    Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions the world set for diplomatic engagement and aid. Hamas claims responsibility for the deaths of scores of Israelis in suicide attacks. Israel, the European Union and the United States list it as a terrorist group.
    The Bush administration is trying to help Abbas turn a disastrous defeat in Gaza into a stronger bargaining posture for peace with Israel. Abbas’ U.S.-backed forces crumbled and fled the smaller Hamas brigades in Gaza last week, leaving the tiny seaside territory in Hamas control.
    Abbas is now consolidating his control in the West Bank. Abbas and some backers in the Bush administration hope that if Abbas can deliver better services and a more normal life for West Bankers it will make the territory a laboratory for a future independent state.
    The future state has long been envisioned as encompassing both the West Bank and Gaza, something both Abbas and his U.S. backers insist remains the goal.
    Rice would not directly address the question of whether Abbas could negotiate for peace while Hamas holds effective control over such a large part of Palestinian population and land.
    ‘‘We are focusing today and in the days to come on helping this new government to find its footing and to begin the work, the very difficult work of making life better for the Palestinian people,’’ Rice said.
    The decision to resume aid and full government contacts replaces one awkward situation with another for the U.S.
    The United States had refused contact with Hamas officials since the radicals won parliamentary elections in January 2006, ending decades of Fatah control.
    In addition to cutting off direct aid, and even requesting that Abbas return some unspent donations, U.S. officials could not even speak with some top Palestinian officials.
    Now U.S. officials can meet freely with the Palestinian government in the West Bank, but must rely on the United Nations and other intermediaries to reach out to Palestinians in Gaza.
    Monday’s U.S. move followed a similar announcement from the European Union, which has traditionally been a much larger donor. Direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian government was rare even before Hamas took power last year, because of the legacy of official corruption and mismanagement left by the late leader Yasser Arafat.
    Israel is also likely to free millions in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel has refused to release most of the money for fear it would benefit Hamas.

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