- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

TEL AVIV — Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he will cooperate with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as long as he doesn’t cooperate with a Hamas-led government, a sign that Israel may deal with moderates in the Palestinian Authority while boycotting Islamist militants who won a Jan. 25 election.

“We have no intention of hurting Palestinian Authority chief Abu Mazen,” Mr. Olmert said, referring to Mr. Abbas by his nickname while addressing a business conference in Tel Aviv yesterday.

The remarks suggest that Israel wouldn’t necessarily suspend all contacts with the Palestinian Authority after Hamas takes over the Cabinet. They also explained Mr. Olmert’s rationale behind a decision Sunday to transfer millions of dollars in customs income collected for the Palestinian Authority, despite calls from Israeli rightists to freeze the money.

“As long as the Palestinian government doesn’t cooperate with Hamas, we will cooperate with the Palestinian Authority … with the intention of strengthening those who believe in Israel’s right to exist without terror, in secure borders. We won’t play into the hands of extremists who want to create an unending war here.”

Israel was disappointed by Mr. Abbas’ reluctance to disarm militants during his first year in office. And even though the Palestinian Authority president emerges severely crippled from the Hamas landslide victory, Israel still has an interest in bolstering his position.

That’s because Israel wants to help Mr. Abbas keep control over Palestinian security agencies, rather than allowing them to come under the supervision of a Hamas-appointed interior minister.

“We want Abu Mazen to retain control over the security forces and not give them to Hamas,” said Shmuel Bar, a Middle East specialist at the Herzlyia Interdisciplinary Center. “We’ll talk to the security organizations as long they’re under [Mr. Abbas] and not under the ministry of Hamas.”

Even though it is almost certain that Mr. Abbas will preside over a government run by Hamas, Israel is adopting a “wait-and-see” approach and is refusing to rule out ties with Mr. Abbas after the formation of a new government.

“Abu Mazen is the man who was elected on the platform of dialogue with Israel, and we see him as a partner,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “We will be following events closely, and we will be make a decision as a result of what happens.”

The green light for the customs payment helps Israel differentiate its relationship with the Palestinian Authority before Hamas joins the government and after, analysts said.

“The idea is not to punish the Palestinians until after Hamas enters the government,” said Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. He said there are economic reasons for Israel’s decision to transfer the tax money, which could help pay Palestinian salaries.

Public-sector wages influence the buying power of Palestinians who purchase Israeli products. A cash-strapped Palestinian government would ripple throughout the West Bank and Gaza, hurting Palestinian and Israeli businesses.

At the same time, the collapse of the Palestinian government could pressure Israel to re-establish its military administration of Arab cities and towns in the West Bank, a prospect with little public support.

Uzi Arad, the director of terrorism studies at the Interdisciplinary Center, said Israel’s support for Mr. Abbas should be made conditional on his commitment to fighting terrorism and peace negotiations.

“If it is assisting Abu Mazen because he presents a nicer face compared to Hamas, that is nice, but of no political use, neither for us nor the Palestinians.” Mr. Arad said. “We should aim for getting that support translated into real action.”

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