EU and U.S. wait on Hamas

Posted in Other | 31-Jan-06 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a news conference in London today.
LONDON The U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and senior European envoys signaled Monday that there would be no immediate suspension of aid for the Palestinian Authority following the victory of the radical Islamic group Hamas, but they continued to warn that aid could be cut off once a Hamas-led government takes power in coming weeks.

In the first high-level diplomatic meeting after the crisis caused by Hamas's surprising electoral triumph, Rice conferred with the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, and with her European and Russian counterparts to decide what if anything could be done to salvage any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

The diplomats' instinct, various officials said, was to avoid provoking an immediate confrontation with Hamas especially as it puts together its regime. They were also trying to avoid actions seen as prejudging what Hamas will do and to keep the door open to aid if Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

A European official said Monday that the strategy was to buy time before a Hamas-led government took hold to let the Palestinians to straighten out their deficit-ridden finances.

This official said there was even a European hope that a Hamas-led government could be led by a political figure not from Hamas itself.

American and European views were the same on this approach, the official said, with Americans saying "no, unless" to Hamas and the Europeans saying "yes, if."

"It's a difference of tone," said the official.

The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas leaders on Monday urged Western countries to continue financial aid.

Hamas has disavowed any intention of changing its strategy or its covenants opposing the existence of Israel. But there is still hope, however tenuous, among some Europeans and Americans of some kind of modification of these tenets.

"We want to see them afloat, we want them to have a government and we want the next government to deal with the reality that it's got to govern," said a senior administration official involved in the meetings.

There was an atmosphere of urgency and confusion to the diplomatic events as they unfolded in London and elsewhere in Europe, as well as a sense of a gathering confrontation not only with Hamas and the Palestinians but also Iran, which was also the focus of Rice's meetings in the afternoon and evening.

The United States continued to press the case for a quick referral of Iran to the UN Security Council by the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency later this week.

Iran presented a last-minute suggestion to put off such an action, but Western diplomats said it represented nothing new.

The issues of Hamas and Iran were not strictly speaking related, though they involved most of the same envoys in separate meetings. Hamas, however, has received support from Iran, and Israeli officials, and some American officials, fear that a confrontation with Hamas could drive it further into Iran's arms.

There is concern in Israel, as well, that Iran has already tried to retaliate against the West over the nuclear issue by supporting attacks on Israelis carried out by Hamas and other Palestinian radical groups.

The session on what to do about Hamas - attended by the so-called quartet of American, European, Russian and UN partners - was still under way Monday evening in London, but different signals were being sent during the day: a firm threat to cut off aid from President George W. Bush in Washington and a wait-and-see tone from several European leaders.

"The Hamas party has made it clear that they do not support the right of Israel," Bush said after meeting with his cabinet.

"And I have made it clear that so long as that's their policy, that we will not support a Palestinian government made up of Hamas."

But senior European officials emphasized the need to wait for at least a bit. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said in Brussels earlier in the day that European governments "have an opportunity to pause and to think about" the issue of Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Dutch foreign minister, Bernard Bot, said, "We still have three or four weeks to make up our minds."

Rice did not lay out a timetable for delaying but said in London: "We've been very clear that we're waiting to see if Hamas is going to live up to the obligations the Palestinians have taken over a period of more than a decade, and to see whether or not they're also going to live up to the obligations that comes with governing as they try to meet the aspirations of their people."

Rice added that this would be the message to Hamas: "You cannot with one hand talk about peace with Israel and on the other hand countenance suicide bombings. This is just a practical matter. I think we're all saying exactly the same thing."

On the other hand, Rice again said that the United States and the West would "review our assistance programs" to take into account the "humanitarian needs" of the Palestinians.

Many diplomats and analysts say that the important distinction could come down to the "indirect" aid in which the United States and Europeans provide health care, education and basic needs for Palestinians under the auspices of the UN relief agencies or various non-government organizations operating in Gaza and the West Bank.

Direct aid especially from the Europeans and from Arab governments has gone to the Palestinian Authority to pay for salaries of its government officials, including security forces. The United States does not pay for such salaries out of its aid money, but Europeans may look for different ways of funding salaries indirectly.

In theory, some diplomats said, some money that now goes directly to the Palestinian Authority could in the future be handled indirectly through some other entity to make sure that it does not go for militias or military actions. But administration officials caution that since aid to the authority is fungible, assisting in one area could help the Palestinians pay for unwanted activities in other areas.

An American official said that the "conditionality" of aid was a major subject of the discussions in London and likely to continue to be discussed in coming weeks.