EU will wait to restore ties to Palestinians
BRUSSELS, Belgium – The European Union will wait until a Palestinian unity government finalizes its policy toward Israel before deciding whether to restore financing to the Palestinian Authority.The issue of whether to offer early encouragement to the new Palestinian Cabinet – perhaps even without the condition that the militant Hamas movement fulfill international demands on recognizing Israel – dominated Monday’s meeting of the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers.Traditionally pro-Arab nations such as France have been keen to resume direct assistance to the Palestinians after a yearlong boycott of the Hamas-led government that economically devastated the Palestinian territories. The bloc’s position has been to insist that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past agreements before ties can be re-established.That was the view that apparently prevailed on Monday.”We simply cannot decide yet when, or even if, we will be able to re-engage with the new Palestinian government of national unity because we will need to see its program and we will need to see its actions,” said the EU’s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.An accord reached last month in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, laid out the framework of a power-sharing deal bringing the moderate Fatah party into partnership with the militant Hamas group.”We think the Mecca agreement represents a first step in the right direction, we have to encourage that,” French European Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna said.The EU meeting opened just hours after the failure of the latest round of coalition talks, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas not making any progress at a meeting in Gaza. Two weeks remain in the period allotted to form a government.One of the new government’s top goals would be to win back foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority cut off by the U.S. and EU last year after Hamas won legislative elections and took over the government. Israel also froze transfers of customs duties and taxes, a major source of funding.On Monday, the U.S. State Department said it would move forward with a proposed $86 million in security assistance to help train forces under Abbas’ control.Spokesman Sean McCormack spoke after four House Foreign Affairs Committee members, including Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reconsider the plan in light of the recent power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas.McCormack said whether the Palestinian Authority receives the full $86 million depends on if officials receive assurances that none of the funds can benefit Hamas.Abbas’ Fatah party is eager to restart peace efforts with Israel, but Hamas has refused to abandon its commitment to Israel’s destruction.Although the EU last year supplied nearly $1 billion directly to Palestinian banks and non-governmental groups – thus bypassing the Hamas government – the yearlong embargo exacerbated tensions between Fatah and Hamas, which have been embroiled in months of infighting.Ferrero-Waldner said the EU was not yet ready to change its established policy.”We think that the Mecca agreement is a good agreement (but) we have to see the personalities, we have to see the program, we have to see the actions and then we will have to judge,” she said.The Mecca agreements could also test the cohesion of the Quartet – the U.S., EU, Russia, and the United Nations – negotiating Middle East peace. The grouping also has demanded that the new Palestinian government explicitly recognize Israel.The United States has said the Mecca accord falls short of the international demands. But Russia, which has sought to play a more prominent role in Middle East peace efforts, also has urged lifting the financial aid blockade.Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also met with her European counterparts on Monday, said she understood why some EU nations were eager to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority, but added: “The way to get legitimacy from the international community is clear, meeting the three requirements laid out by the international community.”Also Monday, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service said Hamas has begun sending militants to Iran for training – “tens and a promise of hundreds,” The New York Times reported.Yuval Diskin, director of Israel’s internal security arm, told a small group of reporters that he saw this as a “strategic danger, more than any weapons smuggled into Gaza.” Without offering concrete proof of the allegation, Diskin said the training could last months or years.Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and has said that since then Palestinians have smuggled large amounts of weapons from Egypt, mostly through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.Diskin was quoted as saying that the aid boycott imposed by the West had persuaded Hamas it cannot rule without international legitimacy, but also drove it closer to Iran.