Despite Hamas's boast to the contrary, European, Israeli and US officials said Thursday that the Quartet had not watered down the international community's three benchmarks for granting the Palestinian Authority international aid and legitimacy.
Quartet representatives - made up of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN - met at the UN on Wednesday and issued a statement that "welcomed the efforts of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a government of national unity, in the hope that the platform of such a government would reflect Quartet principles and allow for early engagement."
The statement, which at points was almost identical to a statement on the Middle East put out by EU foreign ministers last week, did not explicitly refer to the three aformentioned benchmarks. But in an indication that the Quartet had no intention of renewing direct aid to the PA, the statement "endorsed the continuation and expansion of the Temporary International Mechanism for a three-month period, and agreed to again review the need for such a mechanism at the end of that period." This mechanism provides humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinians, but bypasses the PA government.
The Quartet, like the EU foreign ministers last week, also encouraged Israel to resume the transfer of tax revenues to the PA - some $50 million per month. In addition, the Quartet seconded a UN request for James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's special Middle East envoy until he quit in the spring when financial aid to the Palestinians was cut off, to "report on the situation on the ground."
Hamas was quick to claim that the statement was a sign that the international community was softening its position toward them.
"The decision by the Quartet... is a progressive position, and we hope that this position will contribute to stopping all forms of political and economic siege," Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told Reuters. Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, was quoted as saying that the statement showed new "political flexibility and understanding."
One senior Israeli diplomatic official said "it was kind of surprising" that the statement did not explicitly repeat the Quartet's call for the PA to adapt the three conditions. However, he said that the statement did not change the essence of the need for the PA to accept the benchmarks.
"There is a process in Europe to try to accentuate the positive in an attempt to get something moving," the official said, adding that this explained the statement's hope that a unity government would reflect the three principles. But if the new government didn't include these principles, he said, there was no doubt that the EU would not change its policies toward Hamas.
According to officials in Jerusalem, the US went along with the statement because the EU, Russians and UN wanted to show something positive. "It seemed a harmless way for the US to make the Europeans happy," one official said.
One European diplomat said the statement did not represent a change in the Quartet's position, and said it was written in a way intended to show - and not prejudge - Abbas's efforts to form a unity government that would accept these principles.
"This was meant to shore up Abbas," he said. "And this is what [US President George W.] Bush also tried to do when he met him." The two met on Wednesday at the UN.
As to why the principles were not included in the statement, the official said they had been reiterated so often before that there was no need to repeat them again. "But the absence of a reference doesn't mean that the reference is no longer valid," he said.
The diplomat said there had been no change in the position that international aid would not begin without the PA accepting the conditions.
"I can't say there are not those [inside the EU] who don't hope to get the money flow started again, and that there are not those who want to seize on any opportunity to get it on track, but they are not the side that is determining EU policy," he said.
In the US, meanwhile, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams said in a press briefing just before the Quartet meeting and after the Abbas-Bush meeting that if the Palestinian government did not accept the criteria, "our relationship to it will not change - or you might say our lack of a relationship with it will not change." US embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said Thursday that "engagement by the international community would not be possible unless the PA accepts the benchmarks."
Despite this, however, Likud MK and former foreign minister Silvan Shalom characterized the "wretched statement" as a "real diplomatic collapse" and a "scandal."
"The decision behind Israel's back by the Quartet, including the US, to support a Palestinian unity government together with Hamas is very grave," Shalom said in an Israel Radio interview.
He said that pressure would increase on Israel as a result of this statement to transfer tax revenues to the PA and open a dialogue with Hamas.