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Monday, March 19, 2007

Europeans Accepts Palestines New Government

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A senior Norwegian government official met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza on Monday, marking the country's restoration of political and economic ties with the Palestinian government. Deputy Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen was the first senior European official to meet the new government.

Norway became the first country to lift sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in response to the approval of a new unity government on Saturday.

Johansen flew to the Middle East on Sunday, and met Haniyeh on Monday morning. More meetings were planned for later in the day, said ministry spokesman Roy Freddy Andersen.

Norway is not a member of the European Union, but is a key player in Middle East peacemaking and a major aid donor to the Palestinian Authority.

Even though the new Palestinian government includes the more moderate Fatah movement, many countries are reluctant to recognize the government until Hamas rejects violence, recognizes Israel and accepts previous peace accords.

The European Union presidency, currently held by Germany, said Saturday that it is willing to work with the new coalition government and resume aid, but only if Hamas first meets those three demands.

Israel has called on the international community to continue to isolate the Palestinian government.

Israel: International aid boycott on PA to continue

Political sources in Jerusalem said Sunday that Israel expects a certain amount of weakening in the international position on the new Palestinian Authority unity government, but said: "The story is money, and they won't get it for the time being."

"Since the Americans and Europeans are maintaining the freeze on aid, and Israel isn't releasing the withheld Palestinian taxes, Hamas hasn't gained anything," the sources added.

Israel hopes that the international community will continue boycotting the Palestinian government collectively, by withholding all economic aid.

"Overall, the diplomatic battle is being waged effectively," said the sources, praising Germany, which currently holds the European Union presidency, for its efforts in formulating the European position.

The sources dismissed Norway's decision to recognize the PA government and to offer it aid, saying that the amount of support will be inconsequential, and that Norway is conducting a foreign policy independent of the EU because it is not a member state.

The sources also expressed satisfaction with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' decision not to appoint his senior associates as government ministers, thus allowing Israel to "maintain contacts with them."

The Bush administration informed Israel in advance of its intention to maintain contacts with Fatah ministers in the unity government - a decision that is primarily directed at Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

The United States has made it clear that while it will not resume provision of financial assistance to the PA, it has nonetheless decided not to cut ties with senior Fatah officials. U.S. officials said over the weekend that the American position on the PA government has not changed, and that the contacts with Fatah ministers should not be seen as a crack in the dam of the international boycott.

American spokesmen spent the weekend expressing their disappointment at the PA government's platform, saying that it clearly does not meet the Quartet's demands. Nonetheless, senior U.S. officials maintain that the situation in the PA would not dictate a complete severance of ties, and that continuing contacts with moderates is essential for keeping open lines of communication.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive in the Middle East next week next week for a visit that will include meetings with Abbas and other Palestinian officials.

Meanwhile, Israel's cabinet on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to uphold the boycott of the new Palestinian government, with 19 ministers voting in favor and none against. Education Minister Yuli Tamir, and Minister of Culture, Science and Sport Ghaleb Majadele, both of Labor, abstained in the vote.

During the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that "Israel expects the international community not to be misled by the formation of the Palestinian unity government, and to persist with its position of isolating the government that rejects the principles set out by the Quartet."

The prime minister added that the new government encumbers Israel's ability to conduct a dialogue with Abbas, because it includes problematic figures whom Israel cannot accept because they do not recognize its existence.

Olmert told the cabinet that during his recent meeting with Abbas he had made it clear to the PA chairman that Israel would not recognize a Palestinian government that includes representatives of Hamas.

"Abbas promised me that the new government would not be formed before the release of Gilad Shalit, but he didn't keep this promise," noted Olmert. "The rocket fire has continued on a daily basis and what has Abbas done about this?"

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