European unity frays after pact


PARIS — When Mahmoud Abbas announced in Mecca that an agreement had been reached for a Palestinian unity government, Europe’s united position toward the Palestinian Authority came apart at the seams.

Paris strongly favored the agreement, while Berlin and Brussels remained cautious, preferring to hold their applause until the new government presented its principles and intentions to the world.

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Two weeks later, the Palestinians are still far from translating the Mecca pact into a viable political structure. Still, Europe is preparing to launch a new aid mechanism that will replace the humanitarian aid Europe has been providing since Hamas’ election with a more structured program aimed at rebuilding the Palestinian economy.

The European Commission already has outlined the plan and is waiting for a green light from Brussels to put it into action.

Since Hamas took control of the P.A. Cabinet and legislature in March 2006, the diplomatic Quartet overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — set three conditions the government had to meet before direct aid could be restored: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and an acceptance of past peace deals.

Even Europe had to admit that the Mecca agreement fell short on all three counts.

That left European officials with a dilemma: Should they continue to boycott the P.A. government or fudge Europe’s conditions enough so it can argue that the new P.A. government has met them?

A long-term boycott seemed out of the question: Europe has been pointing fingers at Israel for more than a year now, blaming it for the deterioration in Palestinian living conditions, which E.U. officials classify as a “humanitarian disaster.”

That’s despite the fact that since the “boycott,” the international community in fact has been providing more aid to nongovernmental organizations and other groups that serve Palestinians than it used to send through the Palestinian Authority.

France and Germany went head to head at a European ministerial meeting in Brussels in mid-February, disagreeing about how to react to the possible new government. At the end of the day the ministers issued a dry and cautious statement congratulating the Saudi prince who hosted the Palestinian talks and encouraging P.A. President Abbas of the Fatah movement, but little more than that.

European diplomats admitted that they had reached a dead end since Hamas was not ready to take the step of recognizing Israel.

Considering Europe’s initial caution, Abbas’ tour of European capitals this week proved quite profitable. Officials in Berlin kept their guard, making positive noises but offering Abbas nothing concrete to bring home.

His meetings in France, on the other hand, provided just what he came for — a solid pledge to support the future P.A. government, not just with encouraging declarations but with a re-evaluation of European demands.

French President Jacques Chirac surmised that the very act of forming a unity government would lead Palestinian groups to recognize Israel.

Chirac “estimates that the Mecca agreement represents the first step toward fulfilling the Quartet conditions,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement released after Chirac and Abbas met Feb. 24.

France “fully supports the efforts made by President Abbas to compose a unity government according to the Quartet principles,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said — though the Mecca agreement had done nothing of the sort.

Spain and Italy are following France’s lead. But what explains France’s abrupt shift?

In addition to providing an opening to restore Europe’s sense that it is an important player in the conflict, Paris believes the Saudi-sponsored initiative presents a “now-or-never” opportunity to stop internecine Palestinian violence. France also concluded it was pointless to continue demanding that Hamas recognize Israel, since the terrorist group shows no signs of moderating.

At the same time, Paris is trying to reassert its traditionally high international profile and gain the upper hand from Germany regarding the Israeli-Palestinian file.

Given those considerations, the Mecca agreement might provide the fig leaf Europe has been seeking to resume aid. Now that Abbas has managed to stop the violence in Gaza, Paris believes the West must move quickly to reward him.

But Javier Solana, the high representative for European external relations, who met with Abbas on Feb. 23 in Brussels, made clear that no aid package would be delivered before the Palestinian government shows its colors.

“We have two possibilities — that the government of national unity will be part of the solution, or that the government of national unity will be part of the problem,” Solana said after the meeting. “I hope very much from the bottom of my heart that this government will be part of the solution.”

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for foreign relations, met with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week. She presented the new E.U. aid program, which focuses on institution-building projects, reconstruction of the P.A. police and justice infrastructure and other development plans.

Ahead of a European summit planned for March 8-9, France will continue trying to convince Germany and Britain to adopt a more flexible approach.

The combination of the latest French declaration with the ready-to-go aid plan prepared by the European Commission might force E.U. member states to adopt Paris’ new policy and effectively abandon their previous conditions for aid rather than waiting for Hamas to move toward Europe.