Diplomat: Israel should release prisoners to "improve overall atmosphere."
By HERB KEINON
The Hamas-Fatah agreement to form a national unity government is not enough for the Europeans to begin channeling money back into the Palestinian Authority, a senior European diplomat told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday, a day before the EU's foreign ministers are to meet in Brussels to discuss the issue.
The diplomat also called on Israel to unilaterally release a large number of Palestinian prisoners to "improve the overall atmosphere" and possibly strengthen the position of the moderates inside the PA.
US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, joined a meeting at the White House Wednesday between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. No details of the discussion were immediately available, but the Palestinian issue was at the top of the agenda Livni took to Washington.
According to the senior European diplomat, if - as Israel has said - there was to be no linkage between releasing Palestinian prisoners and the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, then the prisoners could be released before Shalit was freed in an effort to dramatically change the atmosphere.
"What is needed is a bold move that would force a breakthrough in attitudes and get people to climb down from their trees," he said, adding that such a move would provide Israel with a dramatic "public relations coup."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet earlier this week he had intended to release prisoners before Shalit was kidnapped in June, but that the idea has since been shelved.
Regarding the PA unity government, the European official characterized it as "a gesture in the right direction. It is an acknowledgement that there is a problem, but it is not a true step. It is hot air and mirrors."
Meanwhile, PA cabinet ministers from Hamas handed in their resignations to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh late Wednesday, a step toward forming a unity government, a government official said.
The next step would be Haniyeh's handing in his resignation to Abbas, who would then pick a candidate to form a new government - probably Haniyeh.
The European official said that he had not seen a written text of the proposed unity government's political program, but "there has not been one single indication that any one of the three conditions would be fulfilled, not even a commitment to stop using violence."
The three conditions he referred to were the international community's benchmarks for granting legitimacy to Hamas: renouncing terrorism, recognizing Israel's right to exist and accepting previous agreements.
He said that all the Hamas-Fatah agreement really indicated was that Hamas "is now pretty desperate to get the money flowing from European countries. Some European countries are said to have told the Palestinians that if they go to a unity government the money will start up again, but I don't think that is true."
He said he did not feel the EU would alter its current cold-shoulder policy toward the PA unless there was a "formal commitment and proof on he ground that they will stop all violence, stop brandishing weapons, stop talking about suicide bombings, stop exalting the 72 maidens waiting for the 'martyrs.'"
He also said that he did not believe the EU would accept a national unity government by itself as a breakthrough.
The official's comment came in contrast to remarks made by Hamas officials in the media to the effect that the EU had promised to end its economic sanctions once a unity government was set up.
Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, issued a statement Tuesday "welcoming" the announcement of the agreement on the formation of a government of national unity and calling it a "positive development." But neither that statement nor any other public EU statement said that the very formation of the unity government would break the EU's economic embargo of the PA.
In the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, the consensus was that a national unity government would enable the Europeans to meet with PA ministers not affiliated with Hamas, a move that could lead to a European decision to restart the money flow down the road. But senior officials in the ministry said the Europeans would most likely condition the flow of money on a Hamas cease-fire.
Livni, meanwhile, started her week-long visit to the US with talks aimed at urging the US not to help the new PA government unless it accepted the three international benchmarks. The US, according to diplomatic sources, saw eye to eye with Israel on this issue.
While Livni was carrying a message of the Olmert government's willingness to begin high-level talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, she will also warn of a possible shift in the world public opinion in favor of talking to the Hamas-led PA.
Speaking to an AIPAC leadership group, Livni said the international community's three benchmarks for granting Hamas legitimacy were not negotiable. "There is no place for any negotiation about Israel's very right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people; this is the very basis of our presence here," she said.
Regarding the war in Lebanon, she said that one of its outcomes was the realization in the international community that the Iranian threat was real. She said it was clear to the world that Hizbullah was not promoting the interests of the Lebanese, but rather the Iranian interest of opening a front with Israel and "preventing and hampering all efforts to achieve diplomatic progress."
Livni was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for an hour-long working meeting on Wednesday afternoon, followed by a joint dinner. During her visit she is also scheduled to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and congressional leaders, as well as representatives of Jewish organizations.
Livni's talks are focusing on three issues: ways to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian track, implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 on the Lebanon-Hizbullah issue and the Iranian nuclear threat.
On Friday, she is scheduled to go to New York to take part in the UN General Assembly meeting.
Nathan Guttman in Washington and AP contributed to this report.
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