Last update - 16:49 27/02/2007
EU: No swift end to embargo on new PA gov't
By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent, and The Associated Press
The European Union on Tuesday played down prospects of a swift resumption of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, as Russia's foreign minister announced Moscow is backing a move to lift an international aid blockade and garner international support of the new Palestinian Authority power-sharing arrangement.
At the start of a visit to Israel and the West Bank, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the joint Fatah-Hamas government should "respond" to the demands of the Quartet of Middle East mediators.
Ferrero-Waldner added that the EU was having initial thoughts about cooperating with the new PA government, but added that the blockade would be lifted only after a long-term assessment of the new government's policies and actions. "We will judge this government by its actions," she added.
Millions of dollars in crucial foreign aid were cut off after Hamas, which the European Union, United States and others consider a terrorist group, gained control of the cabinet and the legislature in January 2006 elections.
The Quartet of Middle East mediators - which includes Russia, the EU, the United Nations and the U.S. - has demanded that any new Palestinian government recognize Israel's right to exist, which Hamas has failed to do.
The EU official's statement dimmed Palestinian hopes for a quick resumption of direct assistance despite making preparatory steps for channeling funds to the cash-strapped Palestinian government.
The European Commission has already created a plan to renew financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority if and when a unity government is formed that receives international recognition.
According to the plan, the details of which Israel has been informed, the EU will channel its aid to a temporary mechanism to be used among other things to build up governmental and institutional capabilities for the future Palestinian state, to build a judicial system and to assist the PA's regular police force.
Lavrov: Russia to push for lifting sanctions
Only hours earlier Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ahead of a meeting with the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal that Moscow would act to lift international sanctions on the Palestinians.
"Russia favors the agreement between Hamas and the Fatah group to share power because it shows wisdom, reason and responsibility before the Palestinian people," he said.
"We are pushing for all members of the international community to support this process and make it irreversible, including efforts to lift the blockade," Lavrov added.
Meshal's Moscow visit reflected the Kremlin's position that negotiations - rather than sanctions - are the best way to deal with Hamas. Russia, which has been clamoring for a greater role in the Middle East, has been more positive about the unity government plan than Washington and the European Union.
"The Russian leadership supported forming such government from the very start," Lavrov said. "We have consistently backed specific steps which helped make this process successful, and we shall continue acting like that."
"The Mecca meeting was also important because it opened the way toward the resumption of the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel," he added.
Meshal thanked Russia for taking "brave steps to host us."
"We highly value Russia's stance ... in support of the national accord between the Palestinians and lifting of the blockade," he said at the start of his talks with Lavrov.
Like Russia, France has also signaled it might support lifting the aid embargo placed on the PA. French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday said he would ask the EU, at a summit in March, to support plans for a unity government.
Political sources in Jerusalem have said the establishment of the new unity government may raise disputes within Europe, with the United Kingdom and Germany favoring standing by the U.S. position, and Italy, Spain and France likely to call for the thawing of relations with the PA and the renewal of aid.
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