The United States denied on Tuesday it was discussing with Israel ways to destabilize Hamas in an attempt to provoke new elections as the Islamic terror group prepares to take over the Palestinian Authority.
The New York Times
, citing anonymous US and Israeli officials, reported Tuesday that the United States and Israel were considering a campaign to starve the Palestinian Authority of cash so Palestinians would grow disillusioned with Hamas and bring down a Hamas government.
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said the idea of forcing regime change by impoverishment was being discussed at the highest levels of the US State Department and the Israeli government. The ultimatum to Hamas would be either to recognize Israel's right to exist, abandon violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements, or risk isolation and eventual collapse, the newspaper said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, however, denied the claim, saying, "There is no plan, there is no plot." White House spokesman Scott McClellan echoed McCormack, denying there was a "plot."
Earlier, however, Israeli security officials confirmed they were looking at ways to force Hamas from power, and were focusing on an economic squeeze
that would prompt Palestinians to clamor for the return of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's ousted Fatah Party.
Security officials also said they weren't optimistic about prospects for ousting Hamas. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
At the same time, Israeli ambassador to the US Daniel Ayalon told The Associated Press that "there are no ongoing discussions with the US designed to bring down the Palestinian government." He added that "there is no conspiracy between Israel and the United States to hurt the Palestinian people and there is no plan whatsoever to compromise the well-being of the Palestinian people."
Israel, which was caught unaware by Hamas's sweeping victory of January 25 Palestinian elections, is putting the finishing touches on its policy toward Hamas, which is to be sent to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later this week for his review, Israel Radio reported on Tuesday.
Asked how Israel would handle Hamas, Mofaz told the radio station, without elaborating, that "Israel is strong enough to deal with any eventuality that would come down the road. ... If Hamas creates a situation in which it continues to act as a terror group and takes over the Palestinian Authority, Israel has the tools to deal with an authority ruled by Hamas."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Al-Qidwa urged the international community Tuesday not to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority as it has threatened to do once Hamas takes power.
"The aid for Palestinians should continue, despite the political situation and the parties that are in government," Al-Qidwa said after meeting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The reports came a day after the outgoing Fatah parliament gave sweeping new powers to Abbas, allowing him to set up a sympathetic court that would be able to veto Hamas legislation unchallenged.
Hamas responded with derision to the report. Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman and incoming legislator, said attempts to bring down a future Hamas government were hypocritical.
"This is ... a rejection of the democratic process, which the Americans are calling for day and night," said al-Masri. "It's an interference and a collective punishment of our people because they practiced the democratic process in a transparent and honest way."
"We need a firm Islamic and Arabic position to confront this challenge," al-Masri added.
The idea of withholding aid is not new. Since Hamas's electoral victory, several Western countries have threatened to cut nearly $1 billion in annual aid to the Palestinians, though Russia's recent invitation to Hamas to visit Moscow and France's support for the Russian invitation have cracked the united front.
Israel has also threatened to cut off monthly transfers to the Palestinians, totaling about $50 million, from taxes and customs it collects for them once Hamas takes power. The new Palestinian parliament is to convene for its first session on Saturday and a new cabinet is expected to be appointed within weeks.
US and European Union governments also plan to deny aid, as Hamas is listed as a terror organization
by both bodies.
The idea of forcing regime change by impoverishing the Palestinians, however, is new.
Even with the Israeli tax transfers and Western aid, the Palestinian Authority is expected to run a $660 million budget deficit in 2006. Without the taxes and aid, a Hamas government could be forced to enact widespread layoffs that would ruin the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families. The Palestinian stock market has already fallen about 20 percent since the January 25 elections.
The strategy could backfire, however, with Palestinians blaming the US and Israel - not Hamas - for their growing misery. Moreover, Hamas would certainly turn to the Muslim world and private donors
to try to make up at least some of the Western shortfall.
Hamas, which swept to power on the strength of public dissatisfaction with Fatah's failure to eradicate lawlessness and corruption, has repeatedly rejected Western demands to change its violent ways. On Monday, a Hamas leader said the group would annul landmark interim peace accords with Israel from the mid-1990s.