EU welcomes possible unity PA government

The European Union welcomed the Palestinians' agreement to form a national unity government - but held off Friday on resuming direct aid to the cash-strapped Hamas-led administration. The EU's 25 foreign ministers issued a statement after a meeting in Brussels expressing the hope that the new government's "political platform will reflect the Quartet principles and allow for early engagement.‰" The Quartet principles are that the government renounce terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist, and accept previous agreements. However, the EU foreign ministers did not demand outright that the new unity government formally take these steps, and some EU officials said getting Hamas to formally recognize Israel was less important than ensuring that the unity government works for peace. "We want to be firm on the principles but should be flexible about the form," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. The unity government, which is expected to take several weeks to form, is said to be based on a document that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel - implicitly granting recognition. The EU ministers also welcomed the prospect of a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas "in the near future with a view to re-launching negotiations." The statement called for an immediate end to "violence by Palestinian factions," as well as to "Israeli military activity in the Palestinian territories." It also called for the immediate release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and "for the immediate release of Palestinian ministers and legislators in Israeli custody." Israel had no reaction to the EU meeting. One Foreign Ministry spokesman said, however, that Israel would judge the new PA government, when it is established, by its deeds and whether it adopts the Quartet's principles. If the government does so, the spokesman said, Israel would be willing once again to negotiate with the PA. International aid to the Palestinians has dried up since Hamas took power in January. Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said the deal for a unity government struck Monday "creates a new situation." "It allows us to break the deadlock," he said, "We have assurances from President Abbas that the new government is committed" to peace. Finland holds the rotating EU presidency. But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Abbas "knows very well international help will only resume if there is a commitment to a cessation of violence." Israel and the United States remain skeptical this will happen. "We don't think that anything qualitatively has changed with respect to the Palestinian Authority and we would expect the Quartet principles to apply and that everybody live up to those principles," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on Thursday. The Quartet - made up of the US, EU, Russia and the United Nations - is expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue further. Tuomioja said the EU has also invited Abbas for talks next week during the UN General Assembly's annual meeting. Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad responded to the EU meeting by saying, "Now there is a good chance to establish normal relations between the government and the EU. Our government program is a good basis for cooperation."