- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel rejected a recommendation yesterday by the Middle East Quartet that it unfreeze customs receipts collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, saying it won’t consider returning the $500 million until Palestinian militants release a soldier kidnapped in June.

A day earlier at the United Nations, the Quartet endorsed the idea of a Palestinian unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. Hamas called the Quartet’s statement a sign of progress that could end its political and economic isolation.

The Quartet, composed of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, also encouraged donor countries to restore aid to the Palestinians after a six-month boycott of the Hamas-led government, but via a special financial bypass of the Islamic militants.

But Israel said it could not remit Palestinian tax revenue for fear of the cash being used against it by Hamas militants.

“Does anyone expect Israel to transfer funds to a regime that’s going to fund suicide terrorism,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. “I don’t think Israel is about to ignore that fact that [Hamas] refuses to accept the benchmark and hold one of our soldiers hostage.”

The Quartet statement spurred criticism in the Israeli parliament that the international community was easing up pressure on the Hamas government to meet three conditions for a dialogue with the Palestinians: recognize Israel, honor peace agreements and renounce violence.

Israel’s public radio news channel cited unnamed government officials saying that they had been taken off guard by the Quartet’s apparent softening toward the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Diplomats like Mr. Regev, meanwhile, said the Quartet had not substantially changed its policy demanding Hamas change its attitude.

But former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud Party criticized the government for not having prevented the Quartet’s statement.

“This is a real diplomatic collapse,” said Mr. Shalom in an interview with Israel Radio. “The decision of the Quartet, including the U.S., to support the Hamas government is something very grave.”

Mr. Shalom said that Israel’s government should never have agreed to hold meetings with Mr. Abbas after Hamas took over the government.

The statement is the first hint that the West would recognize a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

“The decision by the Quartet … is a progressive position, and we hope that this position will contribute to stopping all forms of political and economic siege,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, according to Reuters news agency.

Ahmed Yousef, political adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said the Quartet statement showed new “political flexibility and understanding.” But the West’s aid money will continue to be funneled to the Palestinians through a mechanism that channels cash directly into local bank accounts instead of through the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Finance ministry. So far, the European Union has made available $223 million is going to provide for basic needs, such as fuel purchases and social allowances for public-sector workers.

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