- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The West’s campaign to isolate Hamas moved last night to the gilded palaces of Riyadh, where British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Mahmoud Zahar, a leading Hamas figure, were competing for Saudi rulers’ favors.

The day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed nine Israelis, Mr. Straw was urging Arab leaders to exert greater pressure on Hamas, which has refused to criticize the terror attack in Tel Aviv or renounce violence.

The new Hamas-led government, meanwhile, was pleading for Saudi financial aid to save their administration from economic collapse after a cutoff in Western assistance.

In Jerusalem, Israeli leaders held the Palestinian government responsible for the suicide attack, conducted by Islamic Jihad, but decided against a large-scale military reprisal.

The Associated Press quoted officials saying that the measured response would help preserve a strong international front against Hamas and that Israel would take all steps it deems necessary, including assassinating militants, to prevent attacks.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia found itself caught between Mr. Straw and the Palestinians as it balances its alliance with the U.S., its support for a two-state solution in the Holy Land and its role as generous benefactor to Muslims in need.

Mr. Straw is scheduled to attend today’s “Kingdom to Kingdom” conference, a joint event with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, designed to improve bilateral relations.

British officials said Mr. Straw would seize the moment to deliver a hard-hitting message. But by the time Mr. Straw landed, Mr. Zahar, the new Palestinian foreign minister, had been granted an audience with Prince Saud to plead for money.

King Abdullah has declined to receive Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal because the group has refused to subscribe to the monarch’s Arab-Israeli peace plan, endorsed in an Arab summit in 2002.

Israel has stopped handing over customs remittances worth about $55 million a month to the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, the United States and the European Union have suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid until Hamas halts violence, recognizes Israel and endorses the international “road map” for peace. The moves have left a huge gap in Palestinian finances.

The Palestinian Authority says it faces debts of $1.3 billion. It does not have enough money to pay this month’s wage bill. Up to a third of the Palestinian population depends directly or indirectly on government salaries.

Iran, at odds with the West over its nuclear program, has seized the opportunity to cast itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause by pledging $50 million.

Qatar matched the sum but drew irritation from the United States, an ally.

As the richest Arab state, particularly at a time of record oil prices, the position of Saudi Arabia is vital to any Western strategy of isolating Hamas.

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