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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lavrov, Rice Diverge on Middle East

WASHINGTON -- Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged ending the isolation of the anti-Israeli militant group Hamas and including Syria in Middle East peace talks, exposing fissures in a high-level diplomatic group that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gathered Friday in Washington to validate her new effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Russian proposals run directly counter to Rice's strategy of rallying what she calls "mainstream" Arabs to isolate what she calls "extremist" elements in the region.

"I don't think that to resolve this problem, just like any problem that exists in the world, that you could do it through boycott and isolation," Lavrov said at a news conference after a meeting of the "Quartet," which also includes the European Union, the United Nations and the United States.

Lavrov, with Rice seated next to him, said "Syria could play a constructive role," specifically citing a recent meeting between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and Khaled Mashal, the exiled leader of Hamas' political wing, that Damascus had arranged. U.S. officials were furious at Abbas for agreeing to the meeting, Palestinian officials said.

Rice shot back that the United States, "even at the highest levels," has spoken to Syrian officials and that "Syria knows what it needs to do to be a stabilizing force."

Asserting that "it is counterproductive to isolate anybody," Lavrov said Russia believed that the Syrian-brokered meeting helped facilitate a dialogue between rival Palestinian factions and "will lead to positive results."

The Russia-U.S. clash over policy in the Middle East came amid some of the worst factional fighting in months between Palestinian forces; at least 18 Palestinians, including two children, were killed Friday in fighting between Hamas gunmen and forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah party. When asked whether the violence risked making the diplomatic gathering irrelevant, Rice said the group expressed concern and that "obviously innocent people are being caught up in this violence, and it needs to stop." (Story, Page 14.)

U.S. officials were miffed at Lavrov's intervention, which overshadowed the group's endorsement of Rice's plans to bring together Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and push them to accelerate a long-dormant peace plan.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters on the condition that his name not be disclosed, said Russia did not suggest any of the ideas in preliminary meetings nor in Friday's gathering of foreign ministers. "That is their view, but it isn't shared by others," he said.

During the briefing, the official pointedly -- and gleefully -- said Russia contributed only $10 million of the $700 million in aid received by the Palestinians in 2006, suggesting that Moscow was, at best, a bit player in the region. He also dismissed the impact of the Palestinian meeting in Syria, saying it is "hard to see a positive influence was applied."

During the news conference, Lavrov said Russia supported the communique issued by the Quartet, which called for a Palestinian government "committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations."

The United States has led an international boycott of the Hamas-led government in an effort to persuade it to abandon its pledge to seek the destruction of Israel.

Months of talks between Hamas and Abbas, seeking to forge a unity government that would empower him to negotiate a peace agreement, have not been successful.

The U.S. official boasted that the administration's campaign of isolating Hamas has been successful. He said the U.S. government believes that Hamas has been able to smuggle in only about $46 million in the past 10 months -- for a government that costs about $150 million per month to run. He said U.S. officials had succeeded in identifying and thwarting the delivery of about $400 million in funds that countries had planned to donate to the Hamas government. Instead, he said, the countries -- mainly Arab -- were persuaded to give the money directly to Abbas' independent presidential office.

Accepting an approach long advocated by Europeans and Palestinians, Rice plans to urge Olmert and Abbas to begin discussing the contours of a final peace deal. Previously, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration argued that such negotiations would be premature until the Palestinians and the Israelis met the initial requirements of the stalled peace plan.

On Sunday, Lavrov called the United States "the most difficult partner for Russia to deal with," The Associated Press reported.

The United States, Lavrov added, "should learn from its mistakes on the world stage or risk fomenting new crises."

The foreign minister said relations were less positive at lower levels than between the presidents.