GAZA, (Reuters) – The ruling Hamas militant group said on Thursday a statement by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators was a sign of progress that could lead to the easing of a Western aid embargo.
Israel said the statement “maintains the principle” that any unity government between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction must still meet the three Quartet conditions: recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals.
Western diplomats said the Quartet statement amounted to a softening in Washington’s position that could clear the way for the European Union to expand an existing aid programme for the Palestinians.
The EU aid programme bypasses the Hamas-led Palestinian government, and Western diplomats said they saw little chance of a swift resumption of direct aid to any Hamas-led government, though diplomatic contacts could start.
A Western aid embargo has prevented the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority from paying salaries to its 165,000 workers since March, when the Islamic militant group took power, increasing poverty and lawlessness in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.
In its statement issued on Wednesday, the Quartet — composed of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — endorsed Abbas’s efforts to establish a national unity government with Hamas, which is still officially committed to the destruction of Israel.
The Quartet said it hoped the platform of the unity government would “reflect” the three conditions, but stopped short of insisting that the new government explicitly meet the conditions. The Quartet also urged Israel to hand over withheld tax revenues to the Palestinians.
“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,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said.
Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said the Quartet statement showed new “political flexibility and understanding”.
A senior Israeli government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States agreed to soften its position in order to satisfy the Europeans. But the source said the United States and Israel saw little chance of a Palestinian unity government being formed anytime soon.
“They (the Americans) did not want to get into a fight with the Europeans over what they think is a dead horse,” the Israeli source said.
Israel has said that it would consider releasing the tax revenues to the Palestinians and taking other “positive steps” if the unity government met the three Quartet conditions and secured the release of a captured Israeli soldier.
“It must be clear that only the determined insistence on these three benchmarks by the international community can strengthen Palestinian moderates,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said.
“Giving legitimacy to the extremists that do not accept the three benchmarks can only undermine the position of the moderates,” Regev added.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the right-wing Likud party called the Quartet statement “a real policy collapse” for Israel.
Shalom said a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to hold talks in the future with Abbas, while Hamas remain in power, gave “a green light to the world to speak to Hamas.”
Abbas and Haniyeh agreed last week to form a coalition government in a bid to ease the aid embargo and curb civil unrest. But after Washington raised objections and Hamas sent mixed signals about its willingness to abide by interim agreements, Abbas froze talks.