The US has opened contacts with a senior Palestinian minister in a move which underlined a difference between Israel and its closest allies over their approach to the new coalition government.

Salam Fayyad, the moderate Finance minister, disclosed that he had held a meeting in Ramallah with Jacob Walles, the US consul general in Jerusalem.

Israel’s cabinet on Sunday approved a policy of having no contacts with ministers in the new “national unity” Palestinian Authority whether they were in Hamas or not. Raymond Johansen, deputy foreign minister of Norway, which has said it will end its boycott of the PA because of the new coalition, said yesterday that Israel had declined to meet him in protest at his meeting in Gaza on Monday with the Hamas Prime Minister, Ishmail Haniyeh.

The US had already indicated that it was prepared to meet members of the new government like Mr Fayyad, a former World Bank official with whom it has already had regular contacts. But it has stopped well short of suggesting it would resume direct aid or seek to lift US banking restrictions on the PA without the new government meeting the internationally agreed conditions. These are recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and agreement to honour previous agreements between the two sides.

Meanwhile, a number of European countries, including Britain, are arguing that the EU – of which Norway is not a member – should have contacts with a range of non-Hamas ministers and consider ways of co-ordinating aid with Mr Fayyad.

Israeli officials have pointed to an incident on Monday when Hamas militants shot and wounded an Israeli electricity worker close to the Karni crossing into Gaza as fresh evidence for their contention that the international community should have nothing to do with the new government.

Meanwhile, the office of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert distanced itself from remarks by a member of his Kadima party, Otniel Schneller, indicating that Jewish settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron would be retained in any final peace deal with the Palestinians.


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