EU plans to provide strong support for Palestinian president

On Friday EU foreign ministers decided to provide a definite strong support for the bid of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The president seeks to form a national unity government to replace the current Hamas-led one whose strident anti-Israel views have caused international aid to dry up, AP reports.

Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said the EU would stick to demands formulated with the United States, Russia and the United Nations that the Palestinian government must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace accords.

"We are willing to engage with the Palestinian authorities if they are willing to comply with the three demands," Bot told reporters as he arrived for the meeting. He said signals from the Palestinians so far were "not very positive."

Britain's Europe Minister Geoff Hoon said opening talks with the new Palestinian government depended on whether it moved to meet international demands.

"It's important that we see the basis of the agreement and that we take decisions accordingly," Hoon said. "We want to move things along, we want to see, obviously, a return to the roadmap" for peace.

Officials from the "Quartet" group of Mideast mediators - the U.S, U.N., EU and Russia - will meet next week in New York to assess chances of reviving the road map and easing the Palestinian financial crisis that resulted from the aid cutbacks.

The Palestinians hope that bringing moderates from Abbas' Fatah party into a unity government with Hamas could prompt the EU and other world powers to restore direct aid that was frozen after the militant group won January's parliamentary election.

The joint government, which is expected to take several weeks to form, is to be based on a document that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel - effectively recognizing the Jewish state.

But while Hamas has said it will support Abbas' efforts to seek peace, it is refusing to give up its calls for Israel's destruction.

After meeting Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah late Thursday, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy indicated formation of such a government could lead to resumption of assistance. He welcomed the document implicitly recognizing Israel and said if the new government accepts international demands, "the international community should re-evaluate and revisit its position toward political contacts and aid."

EU ministers are expected to discuss whether the unity government plan represents a significant step toward acceptance of the demands to recognize Israel and forgo violence and whether it could justify a relaxation of the sanctions.

The United States has cautioned against any hasty moves to resume aid.

"We don't think that anything qualitatively has changed with respect to the Palestinian Authority and that we would expect that the Quartet principles apply and that everybody would live up to those principles," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

Oxfam International urged the EU on Thursday "to immediately resume normal international aid to the Palestinian Authority in order to avert a looming humanitarian crisis."

Officials from the Quartet group will meet next week in New York to assess chances of reviving the road map peace plan and improving the Palestinians' financial situation.

The road map, a staged plan that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was launched by U.S. President George W. Bush with great fanfare in June 2003. But neither the Palestinians nor Israel met their initial obligations, and the plan never got off the ground.

The EU is likely to extend a World Bank-led emergency aid program for three months. Since July, the EU has been making emergency aid payments through the program, which bypasses the Hamas-led government.

To date, it has paid 90 million euro (US$114.5 million): 10 million euro (US$12.7 million) for essential supplies and running costs of hospitals and health care centers, 40 million euro (US$51 million) for fuel to run power generators and 40 million euro(US$51 million) in "social allowances" to 625,000 Palestinians and public service workers who are no longer paid by the government. Another 12 million euro (US$15.3 million) has gone to support Abbas' office.

For their part, the 25 EU governments have contributed another 77 million euro (US$98 million). Arab nations have not contributed through the program.