If Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert consults the international community before implementing his "convergence" plan, one suggestion he is likely to hear is that Israel should lease the settlement blocs from the Palestinian Authority rather than annex them outright, a senior European diplomat said Monday.
Olmert has said a number of times, including in his victory speech last week, that he hoped to reach a negotiated settlement with the PA, but that if this proved impossible he would - after holding consultations with the US and the international community - determine the nation's eastern border and incorporate the major settlement blocs into Israel, by 2010.
The senior European diplomat said that while Europe obviously favored a peace agreement, if Hamas were unwilling to negotiate, Europe would "reluctantly" hold discussions with Israel along the lines that Olmert had outlined.
"If Hamas won't sit down and talk, what else should we do?" he asked. In such a case, he said, the EU's hope would be that Israel would "be generous" and give the PA "more than the minimum." He said that in the context of such talks, Israel's leasing of certain settlements or settlement blocs "would certainly come up."
This concept, the diplomat said, was relatively simple and could be applied to an area like Ma'aleh Adumim. Israel would recognize the area as PA territory and lease the land from the PA, he said. "Israel would admit the land is the Palestinians, and the Palestinians would admit the homes there are Israel's," he said.
Under this proposal - a variation of which was discussed by a Labor Party team in December but never incorporated into the party's platform as it appears on the Internet - Israelis living in the settlement would pay property tax to the PA, but vote and pay income tax in Israel. Security would be provided by Israel.
When the Labor team was discussing the proposal, it became known as the "Hong Kong idea" after the 99-year lease arrangement Britain made with the Chinese on the colony's New Territories in 1898. That arrangement ended in 1997, when all of Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control.
The senior diplomat said he regretted that there were no open, high-level talks between the EU and Hamas, but said he "imagined" that lower-level contacts were under way.
"Everyone is pursing their own vital interests," he said. "It would be stupid to be without knowledge of the political enemy, especially if that enemy is expected eventually to be a major player in the peace process.".
The diplomat said that although he had not had any contact with PA ministers from Hamas, he and other European diplomatic officials were invited in mid-February to a reception given by Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, where one of the town's Hamas councilmen was in attendance.
He said he shook the man's hand and discussed the Danish cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad with him.
The diplomat's admission that he had met with a low-level Hamas representative came as a Hamas spokesman said Monday that France had held secret talks with his organization on behalf of the EU. The spokesman also said Hamas had held talks with an Indian official.
"There is an understanding by France of the necessity for the European Union to reconsider its position regarding Hamas, and they have promised to make an effort with other European countries in this regard," Reuters quoted Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri as saying.
However the French Ambassador Gerard Araud said his country had held no such meetings. "We don't have any contact with the Hamas," he said in an Israel Radio interview. "We won't have any contact with the Hamas whatsoever, as long as it doesn't satisfy the three well-known conditions."
These conditions, as laid down by the Middle East Quartet, are that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept agreements signed between the PLO and Israel in the past.
A senior Israeli diplomat said Israel had not lodged any protests with the French because Israel believed that there were no such contacts and that the Europeans were sticking to the conditions laid down by the Quartet.
"Some people don't want to be believe it, but the EU has stood firm on this," he said.
However the European diplomat said that while the American position was crystal clear - no contact with Hamas members or with PA officials in ministries controlled by Hamas - the European position was far less definitive. He said the issue would be discussed and guidelines might be issued when the EU's 25 foreign ministers next met on April 10.
While the EU has placed Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations, there are differing interpretations among the member countries as to what that exactly means. Although all of them have concluded that it was illegal for any funds to be passed to Hamas, there was more than one opinion - unlike in the US - as to whether contacts with Hamas officials were prohibited by law.
An official at the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv had "no comment" regarding Abu Zuhri's assertion that India's representative in Ramallah met two weeks ago in Gaza with PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Abu Zuhri said the Indian diplomat, whom he did not identify by name, told Haniyeh that India wanted to maintain relations with Hamas and to continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.
Israeli officials confirmed that the meeting did take place, and that Israel had made its opposition to such meetings known to the Indian government. The official said Israel was monitoring the developments carefully.
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