JERUSALEM,(Reuters) – Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday Israel has no intention of weakening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and hopes it can cooperate with the moderate leader despite Hamas’s election win.
“We have no interest in hurting the head of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen,” Olmert said in a speech, referring to Abbas, whose Fatah party was crushed by Hamas, a group dedicated to Israel’s destruction, in the Jan. 25 parliamentary ballot.
“As long as he does not cooperate with Hamas and the Palestinian government is not a Hamas government, we will cooperate with the Palestinian Authority cautiously and responsibly,” he said in broadcast remarks.
Olmert’s comments coincided with a report in the Haaretz newspaper that Abbas recently sent emissaries to tell Israeli officials he would continue to be responsible for diplomatic contacts with Israel after Hamas’s victory.
The Israeli daily reported Abbas had requested Israel keep open a dialogue with him, receiving assurances from Olmert that it would.
The Palestinian leader agreed a ceasefire with Israel a year ago, but peacemaking continues to be stalled, with the Israeli government demanding he carry out commitments under a U.S.-backed “road map” to disarm militant groups.
Israel has also failed to fulfil obligations under the peace plan, such as halting construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In his speech to a business conference in Tel Aviv, Olmert said Israel was interested in strengthening Palestinians who “recognise Israel’s right to live without terror, within secure borders” — a clear nod towards Abbas.
A Hamas leader said Saturday the Islamic militant group hoped to form a Palestinian government later this month after agreeing with Abbas to convene parliament on Feb. 16.
Political commentators have suggested Abbas, who was elected separately last year and will continue to serve as president, could pursue negotiations with Israel in his capacity as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Olmert, who has threatened unilateral moves in the absence of a peace partner, said in his speech Israel wanted to avoid “playing into the hands of extremists” and missing “the chance that may exist for new hope for Palestinians and Israelis”.
That was the reasoning, he said, behind his cabinet’s decision on Sunday to transfer to the Palestinian Authority nearly $55 million in tax revenues Israel collects monthly on behalf of the Palestinians under interim peace deals.
Israel had frozen the funds, pending a policy review, after Hamas won the election. The United States pressured Israel to release the money, vital to the Palestinian economy.
Olmert reiterated the transfers could stop if Hamas joined or led a Palestinian government.
“We will not transfer the money automatically. We will examine the situation cautiously at a given moment,” he said.
“But we will do so out of a desire to ensure stability can be maintained and so as not to … play into the hands of those who want to stir up a holy row.”
Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, took over as prime minister after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke on Jan. 4. He now heads the centrist Kadima party that Sharon founded and opinion polls forecast it will easily win Israel’s March 28 election.