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Will the Europeans fund Hamas?

European Union flags. ("European Community, 2004")

European Union flags. (“European Community, 2004”)

PRAGUE, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Panic is perhaps the best way to describe the European response to the recent Hamas win in the Palestinian Legislative Council election. European Union bureaucrats and foreign ministers held a flurry of meetings and consultations following the Hamas landslide in last week’s Palestinian elections that are aimed at creating a new position on European Union financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. The 25 member-state European Union, which gave the Palestinian Authority some $600 million in 2005, is the P.A.’s single largest source of financial support. On the political front, the initial E.U. stance toward Hamas could be found in the clear-cut words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who during a visit with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas said Germany would not speak to Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist. The European Union, like the United States and the United Nations, echoed Merkel’s position on Tuesday, although slipping in the caveat that Hamas needs time to adjust to its new situation. “We don’t want a Palestinian Authority that collapses,” the E.U.’s external relations commissioner, Benito Ferrero-Waldner said. How much time the Europeans will give Hamas after it forms a government in the next few months, and how flexible they will be, is the source of much speculation. “The E.U. will inspect every sentence coming out of the mouth of Hamas leaders to look for some sign of movement towards peace so that the E.U. can keep giving the P.A. money,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies of Brussels, took a more conciliatory view. “Hamas should have a bit of a reflection period,” he said. “The hope on the European side is that a democratically legitimate Hamas-led government transforms itself into a partner for peace; it has happened in the past. The E.U. does not want to make such a movement less likely by being aggressive.” No change in European financing is likely to be considered until after Hamas forms a government, which analysts say may take up to three months. Even then, as long as Abbas remains president, E.U. funding may continue without a noticeable policy shift by Hamas, E.U. insiders told JTA. “The E.U. has a long tradition of supporting the Palestinians,” said Robert Lowe of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a leading London-based think tank. “First, they stake out a position on Hamas, then they compromise.” Jana Hybaskova, head of the Israel committee in the European Parliament, insists the Europeans are serious about cutting off funding if the new Hamas government does not accept a two-state solution.”There was a lot of debate among the foreign ministers about how to proceed, and in the end the hardest line against Hamas won out,” she said. Hybaskova, a Czech native, was part of the European monitoring team at the Palestinian elections. “I spoke with several top Hamas candidates and they said they could stick to the hudna, the cease-fire, and eventually accepting Israel based on its 1967 borders and, perhaps in 10 or 20 years, a two-state solution,” she said. The European stance, she added, is meant to encourage Hamas moderates in a party that is by no means united. Lowe supports this strategy. “Hamas has said it will put off violence and it knows the P.A. can’t survive and pay even basic salaries without E.U. money,” he said. Some Hamas officials however, incensed by the American and European demands for a recognition of Israel, have said in recent days that they will turn to Arab sources for funding. Lowe said this is unrealistic. “Oil prices may be rising, but even the richest Arab countries would not be willing to fill the gap. There is no reason for the Saudis to bankroll Hamas, and Iran does not have that kind of money,” he said. On the surface, said Lowe, it might seem that Israel and the United States would want an end of European funding if Hamas does not accept the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. “But the truth is that it would be terrible for Israel if poverty gets even worse in the territories, which can only lead to more violence. Israel knows this is not to its advantage,” he concluded. It is this wait-and-see stance that irks Oxford’s outspoken Ottolenghi He predicted that the Europeans would find some means to keep funding the Palestinian Authority no matter what Hamas did, even if that meant funneling funds through Abbas. “The chances are very small that Hamas will really change from a party that wants to destroy Israel. This whole ‘if you only empower them they will change’ attitude is misguided nonsense,” he continued. Cutting off funding to Hamas would be a better option in the long term, according to Ottolenghi. “Everyone keeps comparing the transformation of the IRA from an armed terrorist group into a political force when speaking about the hopeful chance for Hamas. Well let me tell you something, the IRA didn’t call for the establishment of a Catholic fundamentalist state in Ireland that should then control all of Europe. And the IRA was forced to change because the Irish government stopped financially supporting it,” he said. Ottolenghi also expressed the view that a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories would be a positive result. “In a crisis, the U.N. steps in and begins a peacekeeping operation and can set up a protectorate, as in Kosovo. Then we stop giving unconditional funding to a bunch of seventh century fanatics with suits and ties,” he said.