TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Differences between Israel and the international community on how to treat the Palestinian Authority have become more pronounced as the deadline for transferring funds to the Palestinians is nearing.
Israeli Foreign Minister Zippi Livni is planning to go to Vienna this week to urge European Union leaders to take a tougher stance towards the PA.
"I suppose that in the coming days we shall see a desire, by some of them, to look to a more sympathetic (Palestinian leader) such as Abu Mazen (the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.) In our view this will be a problem," she said.
The United States and the European government back Abbas and the European Commission Monday decided to provide the PA with Euro17.5 million (some $21 million) to help keep it going at least until a new government takes over. Hamas' leader Ismail Haniyeh is trying to form the new government.
The radical Islamic movement, that the U.S. the EU and Israel consider a terrorist organization, won a decisive victory in the January 25 elections and is now one seat short of a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council.
Israel maintains the cut-off date for dealing with the PA was Saturday, February 18, when the legislature was sworn in.
The United States and the European Union maintain the cutoff date will be when the new government will be sworn in.
A fortnight ago the EU's top foreign policy official, Javier Solana, said they are "Committed to continuing to support the PA in this period of transition, until the formation of a new government. Then, we will see what is its composition and program."
The issue has practical implications since it concerns the transfer of tens of millions of dollars to the PA that is in dire financial straits.
Palestinian Acting Finance Minister Jihad al-Wazir told United Press International that in the past two months they received $30 million from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They got no money from the EU in the past six months and the main source of income to pay their monthly wage bill came from Israel.
Israel collects taxes, VAT from Palestinians working in Israel, customs on goods arriving at its port for the PA, deducts Palestinian debts for water, electricity and other items and transfers the remainder. Usually comes to some $50 million to $60 million a month, al-Wazir said.
Its wage bill of some $150 million goes to pay some 145,000 civil servants and security men, he said. On average every Palestinian worker feeds five people, he added.
Jerusalem transferred the last payment in early February after he sent a letter to Israeli Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert undertaking to disburse the money before the new Hamas administration takes over.
Since then Israel decided to halt further transfers since the Legislative Council convened and in its eyes Hamas is in power. Israeli officials argued that if the money were transferred it would reach Hamas.
The European Commission, which considers the cutoff date to be the date a new Hamas government takes over, Tuesday decided on a Euro 121.5 million aid package. It comprises Euro 40 million directly to the providers of essential public utilities such as water and electricity. Israel provides those services. An additional sum of Euro 64 million would be channeled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and the Euro 17.5 million directly to the PA.
In its statement the European Commission alluded to Israel's freeze on transfers but did not overtly criticize it. "The Palestinian Authority is not currently able to balance its revenues and outgoings, without outside help. It has a substantial monthly deficit, which is set to rise with the Israeli decision to withhold transfers of taxes and customs duties due to the Palestinians," it said.
This issue reflects also the differing approaches to President Abbas.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, wants to reach a negotiated settlement with Israel and has insisted the next government recognize the agreements reached with Israel.
The United States and the EU back him.
"President Abbas was elected on platform of peace and he remains President of the Palestinian Authority," stressed the U.S. Embassy's spokesman in Tel Aviv, Stewart Tuttle.
The EU's Solana said, "We're committed to continuing to work with President Abbas. He was elected last year by an overwhelming majority, with a clear platform. He will continue to be our key interlocutor."
Israeli officials sounded disparaging of Abbas. They recognized his desire for peace but maintained he failed to enforce his decisions and has become what one official called "irrelevant."
"Abu Mazen will try to position himself as a fig leaf on the PA's behalf - the good and legitimate person in this situation. Our job ... is to see to it that the international community does not adopt this (position), does not hold Abu Mazen to its bosom nor any moderate Hamas statements," Livni said.
"The moment a terrorist organization heads the PA, and Hamas is a terrorist organization, it all becomes a terrorist organization. There should be no distinction between Abu Mazen and Hamas," she reportedly argued.
Tough sounding statements might help Olmert's Kadima Party one month before the Knesset elections. It would waken the campaign of its right wing Likud that says Olmert was "weak." The Likud said that its leader, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would be "strong" against the Hamas.
Olmert nevertheless wants to act in tandem with the international community and minimized the differences. He told party rally in Tel Aviv that there is a "complete strategic understanding" with the United States and not even "a spec of misunderstanding, not even a dust of disagreement."
An aide confirmed the difference on the cutoff date for dealing with the PA but added: "It's a tactical matter not differences of opinion."
Another aide told UPI the United States and the Europeans did not oppose Israel's decision to withhold further transfers to the PA.
Olmert has however encountered criticism from an unexpected source. The former Deputy Director of the Shabak security service, Ofer Dekel, said Hamas is "very sensitive" to its domestic public opinion. It must provide "100 percent services to 100 percent of its population, not only to its own supporters." It needs money, international support, and fears anarchy.
Withholding funds might be counter productive, Dekel argued. Iran offered to help Hamas and that might be a bear hug for the Palestinian organization that wanted to preserve its independence, he added.