Visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon Sunday said the time is not ripe to meet with officials from the Islamic Hamas group, dealing a setback to the new Palestinian government's efforts to win international recognition.
Ban's comments came on a day of high-profile diplomacy, with the UN chief and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both in the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Hamas, branded a terrorist group by the US and European Union, joined the more moderate Fatah Party in a coalition government last week.
US and European diplomats have held a stream of contacts with moderate members of the new coalition while avoiding Hamas ministers.
While welcoming the new government's formation, Ban said "the atmosphere is not fully ripe" for talks with Hamas, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
"At this time, I do not have plans to meet with Prime Minister Haniyeh or other Hamas Cabinet ministers," Ban said, expressing hope the new government's actions would "show a genuine commitment to the basic principles ... of peace." He spoke after a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
Ban is paying his first visit to the region as UN secretary-general. Rice was scheduled to meet later in the day with Abbas. Both hope their clout will help to prod Israel and the Palestinians to start talking peace again.
Ban and Rice are in the area ahead of a high-profile Arab summit in Saudi Arabia this week where officials are expected to revive a 2002 Saudi proposal for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.
Israel rejected the Saudi plan when it was first mooted, but has shown interest in it recently.
The Saudi plan calls for full diplomatic relations between the entire Arab world and the Jewish state in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel is cool to a full withdrawal. It also objects to the plan's apparent endorsement of the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to properties in what is now Israel.
(China Daily via agencies March 26, 2007)