Cairo, Egypt Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday began a campaign to forge a united front against Hamas, but Egypt broke ranks and said it opposed isolating the militant Islamist group that won control of the Palestinian government last month.
After meeting with Rice at the beginning of her three-nation Middle East tour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called for continued support for the Palestinian Authority as Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, forms a government.
"We should give Hamas time," said Gheit, who said an immediate aid cutoff or other punitive measures could hurt the Palestinian people.
He criticized Israel's decision Sunday to withhold $55 million in customs and tax dues from the cash-strapped Palestinian government, which Israel collects because it controls the borders.
The Egyptian's remarks underscore the challenge Rice faces as she tries to enlist Washington's Arab allies and to convince Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, that it faces isolation unless it renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist. The U.S. administration's leverage could prove to be limited if Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas that's profiting from high oil prices, were to provide more aid.
Hamas won parliamentary elections last month. On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah party, formally asked Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the likely new prime minister, to form a government. The process is expected to take five weeks.
Gheit didn't make it clear whether Egypt would support continuing aid to the Palestinians after Hamas takes power, but he suggested that Cairo would look to Abbas, who'll remain in power and who supports peace talks with Israel, as the symbol of the Palestinian people.
"We support the (Palestinian) Authority. And the Authority is in the service of the Palestinian people," he said at a news conference with Rice. "It is premature to judge the issue right now."