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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel's decision to stop further revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority contradicts understandings with the Quartet that these transfers would continue until a Hamas government was formed, Western diplomatic officials said Sunday. They said this "about face" could lead some countries to rethink their own positions regarding Hamas.
"Israel broke with the Quartet position," one Western diplomatic official said. "Now I don't know if there will be a unified Quartet position."
According to the officials, the Quartet statement of January 30 that called for all members of a future PA government to be committed to nonviolence, recognize Israel and accept all previous agreements with Israel also urged measures "to facilitate the work of the caretaker government to stabilize public finances."
The government decision to take steps against the PA now, rather than waiting until Hamas formed a government works against this goal, the officials said, and as a result there was concern that the whole Quartet framework toward Hamas could now fall apart.
Diplomatic officials said that Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn had been attempting to raise money for a PA-interim government on the premise that the $60 million monthly payments from Israel would continue.
"Any fund-raising among Japan, European and Arab countries was dependent on Israel continuing the payments," one official said. "But now the chess board has been thrown into the air."
According to the official, Israel, with US acquiescence, has said it no longer accepted the Quartet's position of supporting an interim government. If there was an independent Israeli-US position on this matter, he said, then the Quartet resolutions have no meaning.
The officials were responding to the cabinet's decision to accept proposals regarding Hamas put forth by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after days of deliberation.
"From Israel's point of view, a new situation has been created," Olmert told the cabinet before the vote. He said that Israel and the Quartet have defined threshold conditions for holding contacts with Hamas: Recognition of Israel, disavowing terror and dismantling terrorist infrastructure, and recognition of previous agreements with Israel.
"It is clear that in light of the Hamas majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council and the instructions to form a new government that were given to the head of Hamas, the PA is in practice becoming a terrorist authority," Olmert said, adding that Israel would not acquiesce to this.
"Israel will not hold contacts with the administration in which Hamas plays any part - small, large or permanent," he said.
Explaining why Israel had decided to take steps against the PA now, instead of waiting - as the rest of the international community intended to do until Hamas formed a government, Olmert said that Saturday's swearing-in ceremony meant that Hamas had effectively taken over the PA.
"Israel views the rise of Hamas as a dangerous milestone that turns the PA into a terrorist authority," he explained. He said this situation "will influence the future of Israeli-PA relations and will begin a period in which ties with the PA are downgraded unless Hamas fully accepts the principles that the international community has presented to it."
The government unanimously passed the proposals that call for the following:
Israel will no longer transfer tax and customs revenues to the PA, a sum of between $50m. and $60m a month.
Israel will approach the international community to discontinue all financial assistance to the PA, with the exception of humanitarian aid provided directly to the Palestinian population. Israel, according to the cabinet decision, will expand its assistance to humanitarian organizations that work with the Palestinian population.
Israel will prevent the transfer of any security or military related equipment to the PA security apparatus
People affiliated with Hamas, including members of the PLC, will not be allowed in areas under Israeli control.
Security checks at crossing points, especially Erez and Karni, will be intensified in light of a heightened security risk.
Olmert termed these measures "gradual and measured" and said they reflected a policy of linking Israeli measures to developments on the ground. He said that these were the first of a series of steps in the Israeli arsenal.
National Security Council head Giora Eiland told the cabinet that while he agreed with the substance of the measures, it would be premature to take them now, and that the steps should be implemented only after a Hamas-government was formed - which is the date when the international community would begin treating the PA differently as well.
Eiland said that if Israel wanted the ability to take even harsher measures against a Hamas-led PA in the future, it would need international support and understanding now, and that this support would likely diminish if it was perceived that Israel did not give Hamas enough time to either accept or reject the three conditions for international acceptance.
He warned against an erosion of international support for Israel's position if its steps were seen to harm the Palestinian population.
Olmert said at the end of the meeting, which included security briefings from OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, that one thing had become clear to both Israel and the international community: If the chances of reaching an agreement with the PA were small before the PLC elections, now they were even smaller.
"We need to deal with this situation," he said, an allusion to what he has indicated before - that Israel would unilaterally set its own eastern border if there were no one on the other side to deal with.
Olmert also reiterated his position, stated before, that "the sky has not fallen" as a result of the Hamas victory, and that Israel had - during the period of Yasser Arafat - dealt with terrorism that was initiated by the PA.
In an apparent swipe at his political rivals on the right's calls for a harsher stance against the PA, Olmert said that Israel must respond in a measured and balanced way so that the international focus remained on Hamas, and not on the measures Israel has taken against it.
Yadlin, Diskin and Halutz all warned about falling into what they called Hamas's "honey trap," meaning that the organization would moderate its statements and image and lower the lever of terrorism in the short term, while all the while working according to an ideology aimed at wiping Israel off the map.
Yadlin said that while Hamas was trying to gain international legitimacy by sending out more moderate messages, it remained attached to its ideology. Reminding the cabinet that Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said that Israel would cease to exist by 2027, Yadlin said that the organization's policies were planned not in terms of weeks or months, but rather generations.
Diskin warned of the influence Hamas could have on Israeli Arabs, something he termed "a threat" both in the short and long term.