Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may accede to a request by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at their meeting in Jericho on Thursday to release some of the PA tax revenues that Israel froze after Hamas took power last year, The Jerusalem Post has learned. "We'll see what they ask for," a senior government official said when asked whether Israel would release some of the estimated $700 million in Palestinian tax and tariff revenues it has been withholding since Hamas formed its first government in March 2006.
New PLO account disbursing millions
"Israel is willing to check to see whether it is able, within the existing mechanism, to release some of the funds," the official said.
Israel is under increasing pressure to release at least some of the money, and government officials said the issue came up in nearly every meeting Olmert held with foreign leaders. For instance, visiting US Sen. Joe Lieberman brought it up on Sunday when he met with Olmert after meeting with Abbas in Ramallah.
The Middle East Quartet, in a statement released after its meeting in Berlin last week, said, "The resumption of transfers of tax and customs revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority would have a significant impact on the Palestinian economy. The Quartet encouraged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to consider resumption of such transfers via the Temporary International Mechanism to improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and Gaza."
Israel transferred some $100 million to the Palestinians earlier this year, but government officials said Jerusalem was not satisfied that the mechanism had worked effectively and that all the money had gone - as earmarked - for humanitarian needs or to beef up Abbas's Force 17 "Presidential Guard."
"We are still waiting to see an improved mechanism," one government official said.
Release of the funds is one way many in the international community believe that Israel could strengthen Abbas and Fatah in their ongoing - and often violent - battle with Hamas.
Olmert, when asked about the money by foreign leaders, generally responds that Israel wants to relieve the humanitarian situation in the PA, but can not be expected to fund Palestinians terrorism against Israel. Israel wants to ensure that none of the money finds its way into the hands of Hamas or pays PA government salaries.
Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet in Thursday in Jericho, the first time that they will get together in the PA, and not in Jerusalem.
At Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, meanwhile, Olmert said there were no negotiations under way regarding a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.
"In light of what appears to be a decrease in Kassam fire, I want to make clear that we are not negotiating, we are not committing to change our method of operations," the prime minister said.
Olmert said Israel's military operations in Gaza and the West Bank would continue without letup, and reiterated Israel's threat that "no one has immunity. This activity will continue as long as it contributes to Israel's security needs," he said.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the campaign against the Kassam production, and against those funding the rockets, would continue unabated.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, for her part, told the cabinet she had sent formal invitations to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib to visit Israel, as representatives of the Arab League, for talks on the Arab Peace Initiative.
The two men told Livni at a meeting in Cairo last month that they would be representing the Arab League in the talks with Israel, and would be coming to Israel "soon." No date has been set for their visit, something diplomatic sources in Jerusalem attribute to the unclear Israeli domestic political situation.
Livni told the cabinet she added to the letters an open invitation to officials of any of the other 20 Arab League members who may want to join the talks.
Regarding the constant barrage of reports regarding Syria, and whether Israel is talking, or should be talking, with Damascus, Olmert responded to a Yediot Aharonot article saying that senior officers were pushing him to negotiate with Damascus by saying: "I would be glad to hear when exactly those officers pushed me to conduct negotiations with Syria."
According to the story, the officers believe that if Olmert does not decide to negotiate with Syria soon, the risk of war with Syria this summer will increase. The security cabinet will discuss the situation with Syria on Wednesday.
"What does this mean, the army is pushing the prime minister to conduct negotiations?" asked Vice Premier Shimon Peres at Sunday's cabinet meeting. "Who are these officers? What is happening to us is that this is an invitation in the newspapers to attack the government."