'Hamas must back peace or go broke'

PA minister tells 'Post' Hamas must change its ideology or PA will disappear.

haniyeh waving 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
haniyeh waving 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
On the day that a Hamas leader in Cairo said recognizing Israel "was a mistake" that "must be corrected," Palestinian Authority Acting Finance Minister Jihad Wazir said that if Hamas did not change its ideology the PA would collapse for lack of funds. "If Hamas doesn't make adjustments to be part of the peace process, it can't run the PA, and the PA won't operate," Wazir told The Jerusalem Post while sitting at the paper-stacked desk in his office near Ramallah.
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Wazir, the deputy finance minister who became acting minister when Salaam Fayad resigned to run in the recent elections, spoke as he prepared to leave his office to drive to Jerusalem to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Finance Minister (and Acting Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert. Hamas's landslide win has made the Finance Ministry a focal point of attention because Israel and Western donors refuse to transfer money to a Hamas-led government unless it recognizes Israel and stops terror. Yet Hamas leaders remain resolute that recognition of Israel won't happen anytime soon. "We believe that [recognition of Israel] was a mistake that happened in the past and this in particular must be corrected," Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's Lebanon-based deputy political leader, told reporters in Cairo. Abu Marzouk did not explain how the mistake would be "corrected," but did not rule out future recognition. "Where are the borders of the Israel we are supposed to recognize? Are the settlements included in the borders of Israel? ... Is the return of the refugees acceptable to Israel?" he asked. "Until these questions are answered, it is not possible to propose [recognition]." Back in El-Bireh, a phone call from Israel's Finance Ministry brought a smile to Wazir's face. "That's great news," he told the caller, looking visibly relieved. "We'll have lunch and a glass of wine." Israel had agreed to transfer the $54m. The US and the EU have also decided to continue funding the PA while a caretaker government rules. But the payments will not continue for much longer. "I estimate we have six to eight weeks more of breathing space until Hamas forms its government," said Wazir. Hamas leaders are very aware of the financial dilemma they face. Exiled Hamas leaders, including Abu Marzouk and Khaled Mashaal, met in the Egyptian capital Sunday with recently-elected Hamas leaders from Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud a-Zahar, to decide together who will be the next Palestinian prime minister. They also will begin a fundraising tour of Muslim countries in an effort to drum up dollars to keep the PA running. Wazir was pessimistic about their ability to succeed. "The Arab countries cannot transfer money to the PA without the approval of the US," he said, adding that "no single country can cover our expenses." Furthermore, large amounts of money cannot be transferred from countries or sources unacceptable to Israel. The PA does not have an independent banking system because it is not a state, so all transactions to Palestinian banks are done through Israel, which monitors them, explained Wazir. "Hamas money transfers to [local] NGOs where possible," he said. "But if you're talking about a national budget, there's no way you can do it clandestinely." Two Gulf States have approved fund transfers to the PA. Saudi Arabia will be transferring $20m. it previously promised and Qatar will be transferring another $13.2m. Ministry officials are not only uncertain about the future of their salaries, but about the future of their jobs. Wazir is a technocrat with degrees in business administration from the US and UK. "But I'm also a Fatah party member," he said. "I don't know if [Hamas] will keep me." Nevertheless, he has prepared the budget for 2006 and said that if his plan were followed, the PA would once again be able to support itself within three years. Despite concerns over his job, Wazir did not mince words. "Hamas will have to face the music," he said as he stood up to go to the meeting with Olmert. "Being responsible for three million Palestinians is not the same as running an NGO in Gaza." On the floor of the ministry office manager's room lay seven piles of papers. "Those are the bills we have to pay," said the manager, Tareq Mustafa, who has been fielding constant calls over the past week from other ministries anxious to know if they will get paid. The PA needs $116 million a month to pay salaries of 137,000 workers, civil servants and security forces. That does not include payments to vendors for supplies and services, nor does it include the monthly social security payments to the nation's poorest. Israel reopened the Karni cargo crossing into Gaza on Sunday, more than three weeks after closing it because of intelligence that terrorists were planning an attack there. Palestinian officials estimated the Gaza economy lost $30m. due to the closure, mostly because 135 tons of fruits and vegetables spoiled as they waited to cross for delivery to Israeli and European markets. AP contributed to this report.