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Saudis join Egypt in support for Hamas

UAE is secretary of state's next stop on Middle East tour

From Elise Labott
CNN

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal hold a joint press conference Wednesday.

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Saudi Arabia will continue supporting the Palestinian Authority despite the election of a government led by the Islamic militant group Hamas -- because it does not want to punish ordinary Palestinians, the kingdom's foreign minister said Wednesday.

He made the announcement after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on a tour of the Middle East. She is trying to persuade Arab nations to increase pressure on Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.

But Saudi officials told Rice that the kingdom will continue funding the Palestinian Authority and will encourage Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution with Israel, said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

"We think it would be the ultimate of irony that, at the time when we need to take care of these people who are seeking peace, that we shall fall short of doing so," al-Faisal said of the Palestinian people who overwhelmingly voted Hamas into power last month.

The U.S. is reviewing its aid to the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians already have agreed to return $50 million in aid provided for infrastructure projects in Gaza.

Hamas, which has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Israel.

Rice told reporters that the United States is still committed to providing humanitarian aid for the Palestinians, just not via a Hamas-led government that refuses to meet the demands of the international community.

"A good life for the Palestinian people requires cooperation with Israel," she said. "It's simply a fact of life of the way that the Palestinian economy and the Israeli economies work."

But the discrepancy between different types of aid poses problems for the Saudis.

"How do we distinguish between humanitarian and nonhumanitarian aid? Infrastructure project or humanitarian aid projects? They need both, infrastructure and humanitarian aid," al-Faisal told reporters.

Saudi Arabia is the largest provider of aid to the Palestinians, doling out between $14 million and $17 million a month.

Rice is not expressly asking Arab countries to withhold aid from the Hamas-led government; rather, she is discussing ways that the United States' Arab allies can increase pressure on the group to meet the demands of the international community, said U.S. officials traveling with Rice.

Those demands include renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist and agreeing to abide by pacts signed by previous Palestinian leaders.

"It is difficult to imagine a peace process or the road map or a two-state solution in which one of the parties does not recognize the right of the other party to exist," Rice said.

Al-Faisal's comments mark the second time in two days that an Arab nation has disagreed with Rice over support for Hamas. On Tuesday, Egyptian officials said they would continue to provide financial backing for the Palestinians. (Full story)

U.S. officials say that the United States and its Arab allies agree that Hamas should moderate its politics, but they disagree on how to deal with the group and how much time it should be given to comply with international demands.

Rice met privately Wednesday with Saudi King Abdullah for more than two hours at the king's farm. She also met with al-Faisal and the kingdom's head of intelligence.

Rice's next stop is the United Arab Emirates, where she is scheduled to meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and hopes to persuade Arab nations to increase pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

U.S. officials contend Iran's nuclear research is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusation, saying it wants to produce electricity for civilian use.

The United States has won a bid to have Iran reported to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. Arab governments have expressed concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, but have balked at supporting the United States because of Muslim anger over the Iraq war and a perceived U.S. bias toward Israel.

Rice is expected to argue that Iran is destabilizing the Middle East by supporting extremist groups in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.

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