- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

CAIRO — The Hamas-led Palestinian government agreed yesterday to an international peace conference with Israel after the Arab League — angered by Israel’s military offensive in Gaza — voted to end a financial blockade on the Palestinians.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas endorsed a statement by Arab foreign ministers calling for the peace conference during a meeting in Cairo to respond to a U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Gaza offensive.

Mr. Zahar said the Palestinians had asked for the peace conference “in order to reach just and comprehensive solutions.” The acceptance marked the first time the Hamas-led government has indicated that it would consider making amends with the Jewish state.

The West cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid and tax revenues to the Palestinians after Hamas took power in March in an effort to pressure the Islamic militant group to moderate its anti-Israel ideology. The United States, Europe and Israel are demanding that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said he was not aware of the conference proposal. But he said Hamas could not be a party to talks with Israel unless it met the international community’s stipulations.

“A multilateral conference doesn’t make Hamas legitimate,” Mr. Regev said. “What makes Hamas legitimate is accepting the international benchmarks.”

Hamas’ decision came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Washington ahead of a meeting with President Bush today.

The Arab League said ministers sought a conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “according to international resolutions and the principal of ‘land for peace.’ ” Arabs want Hamas to endorse a 2002 Arab initiative that calls for peace in exchange for land seized by Israel in the 1967Six-Day War — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Yesterday was the first time that Mr. Zahar has attended an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting since Hamas became the ruling party. The Arab League had refused to let him join until Hamas accepted the peace initiative.

Arab ministers also decided yesterday to end a financial blockade on the Palestinians to show their anger over U.S. veto in the Security Council on Saturday.

The U.N. draft resolution would have condemned the Israeli offensive in Gaza that has killed more than 50 people recently and also demanded that Israeli troops pull out of the territory. John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Arab-backed resolution was “biased against Israel and politically motivated.”

It was the second U.S. veto of a draft resolution on Israeli military operations in Gaza this year.

“There will no longer be an international siege,” said Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

The economic sanctions have debilitated the Palestinians and have led to clashes between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah party led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to form a more moderate government and renew the peace process with Israel.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the decision to break the Western-led financial blockade was a message to the United States.

“Our message is loud and clear to those who take unfriendly positions against Arabs,” Mr. Moussa told reporters in Cairo.

In an immediate show of support, Kuwait’s foreign minister said his country would send $30 million to the Palestinians, and Bahrain’s foreign minister said the Arab countries would begin contacting international financial institutions to get the money transferred to the Palestinians.

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