PM: Helping the PA is 'risky, but necessary'

Olmert leaves for four-way summit at Sharm e-Sheikh; 'Hamas is not a partner... but we want somebody on the Palestinian side.'

Fatah demo 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Fatah demo 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sets out for the four-way summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh today with a willingness to give some "perks" to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but little real expectation that the meeting will mark a dramatic turning point for the region. "Hamas is not a partner," Olmert told Sunday's cabinet meeting. "But we certainly want somebody on the Palestinian side. Is there anyone else out there except for Abu Mazen [Abbas] who represents a stream that may put us on a track to something?" Olmert said he had no illusions, and didn't want to give anyone the mistaken impression "that we are on the brink of a dramatic breakthrough." The prime minister said he realized that each of these steps carried risks, but that "it is necessary to take risks, even though it is not fun. Otherwise we will be locked in a vicious cycle where on the one hand we don't give anything, and on the other we want to make progress." Olmert is scheduled to hold separate meetings in the afternoon with Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordanian King Abdullah II. The four leaders will then meet together over dinner and hold a joint press conference. Olmert told the cabinet there was concern that Abbas would again try to make common cause with Hamas, as was done when the Palestinian unity government was formed a few months ago in Mecca. At the same time, he said, "we will spare no efforts to create a platform from which it will be possible to move forward. That is the spirit I will be taking to Sharm." He will also be taking a decision voted on by the cabinet on Sunday, with only Israel Beiteinu ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Yitzhak Aharonovitch voting against, to "renew transferring tax revenue" to the PA. The government resolution said that the money would be transferred within a framework and according to a timeline that would be determined with the new Palestinian government, while making sure that the funds do not go to terrorist organizations. The resolution also stipulated the transfer of the money would be dependent on the PA recognizing the three Quartet conditions - recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Olmert told the cabinet that the money would be released gradually, with the first installment, widely believed to be some $600 million, likely to be transferred "within the next few days." The prime minister said it was inevitable that Israel would transfer the money. "If in the past we didn't transfer the money because there was a Hamas government, now that they are not in the government, how can we not transfer the funds?" he asked. Government officials said that a mechanism still had to be developed with the Palestinians to ensure that the money did not go to terrorist elements. Before February 2006, when Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority government, Israel transferred the funds directly from the Treasury to the PA Finance Ministry. From that time, Israel only made one other transfer to the PA, following a meeting between Abbas and Olmert in December 2006. Then the money was transferred to a special account controlled by Abbas. The plan this time, according to the officials, was to transfer the money directly to the new PA government Treasury, but the details of what mechanism would be in place to track where the money was going still had to be worked out. Further, the government resolution noted that Israel would not have any dealings with Hamas, but would continue its humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population in Gaza, including supplying water, electricity, food, medicine and medical services. The logistics of how this would be carried out, however, remained vague. In security consultations held before Sunday's cabinet meeting, attended by new Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a number of other goodwill steps toward Abbas were agreed upon, including lifting an as yet undetermined number of roadblocks in the West Bank, allowing greater freedom of access in the West Bank and passage to Israel for some Palestinian businessmen. When Lieberman said Israel had taken poor risks in the past, a reference to the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza, Olmert replied, "We are strong enough to gradually take risks." During the cabinet meeting, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence, told the ministers that Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria and the world Jihad movement were all actively working against Israel, and may force a conflict as early as this summer. "Any one of these authorities can bring about deterioration in the situation this summer," Yadlin said. He added that while none of these actors wanted to initiate a conflict with Israel in the short-term, a miscalculation by any of them could force a confrontation. According to Yadlin, there was little support inside Gaza for Hamas's takeover, and the organization realized that "it went too far." He said the organization was now trying to win legitimacy from the population, then from the Arab world and finally from the international community. Yadlin said there was not a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that there was enough food in the Gaza Strip to last for at least another week. Yadlin also said that Hamas's long-term goal was to take control of the West Bank, and - even more importantly - of the PLO. Hamas, Yadlin said, increased its military strength significantly by taking over arms and ammunition that were controlled by the Fatah security forces it overran in Gaza. While in the short-term the organization had an interest in preserving quiet and patching up relations with Abbas, it would in the long-term return to terrorism, Yadlin said. He added that while Israel was willing to release frozen tax funds and lift some West Bank roadblocks, Abbas wanted much more, including immediate diplomatic negotiations with Israel, a transfer of arms and ammunition, an international force in the territories, the release of prisoners and an agreement by Israel not to hunt down terror suspects. Yadlin said that the events in Gaza took the Arab world by surprise, with no one thinking that Hamas would act so aggressively against fellow Palestinians. The only countries that expressed satisfaction with the developments were Syria and Iran, he said. Head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Yuval Diskin told ministers that Hamas was weighing the option of carrying out a terror attack from Gaza in order to make matters more complicated for Abbas. He noted, however, that at the present time the organization was maintaining quiet in order to consolidate its position. Diskin also said that while Hamas was weak in the West Bank, Fatah was also divided and weak there as well. In a related development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday evening for high-level talks both in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Diplomatic officials said the sudden visit was the result of Russia wanting to get involved in the flurry of diplomatic activities that have taken place since Hamas took over Gaza. Although Iran is certain to come up in talks Lavrov is scheduled to hold with Olmert, Livni and President-elect Shimon Peres, the focus is expected to be on the situation in Gaza. Israel is also expected to register its disappointment with Russia's decision to deliver state-of-the-art MiG-31E jets to Syria. The Foreign Minister's director-general Aharon Abramovitch, meanwhile, left Sunday for three days of high level talks in China. This will be Abramovitch's first visit to China, and the talks there, according to Foreign Ministry sources, would deal both with the situation in Iran and with the Palestinians. •