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Israel to continue work with Abbas


JERUSALEM --Israel will continue to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority and its interim government as long as Hamas is not represented there, the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday.

He said Israel would cooperate with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, whose position is not directly affected by the sweeping victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections.

"I have no interest in harming Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen as long as he doesn't cooperate with Hamas and as long as the Palestinian government isn't led by Hamas," Olmert said.

Olmert told an Israeli-European economic conference in Tel Aviv that "as long as it doesn't contain a Hamas government, we will speak and cooperate" with the Palestinian Authority "with caution and responsibility -- with the intention of strengthening those who acknowledge the right of Israel to live without terror and within safe borders."

Abbas is from the Fatah faction that dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the legal signatory of all treaties and agreements with Israel -- of which he is the chairman.

As president, Abbas has responsibility for the security services as "commander in chief." But when Yasser Arafat was alive, the United States pressed for the creation of the post of prime minister, and of a Cabinet, where the prime minister is chairman of the national Security Council, and where the interior minister is also in charge of the security forces.

The election of Hamas, which will control the prime minister's post and the government, has made the new arrangements awkward for the United States and for Abbas, who says he intended to try to regain full control over the Palestinian security forces and their budget.

Israel and the West, taken aback by the victory of Hamas, which they consider a terrorist group, are looking to Abbas as if he has somehow become stronger after Fatah's defeat. Before, Israel and the West criticized Abbas for weakness when Fatah controlled the government.

Olmert spoke one day after his government decided to transfer about $54 million in tax and customs revenues, collected by Israel but owed to the Palestinians, to the Palestinian Authority. But the Israeli leader warned that a decision will be made each month on the transfers and that the money would not be given to a government containing members of Hamas.

Israel was under pressure from the United States to release the money so the Palestinians can pay 140,000 employees, including about 58,000 members of the security services.

The United States is trying to postpone the day that Hamas takes control until after Israeli elections March 28, so that international funding can continue to flow to pay salaries. James D. Wolfensohn, the representative of the Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- is about to make a trip through the Arab gulf states to try to raise up to $300 million for the Palestinian Authority.

Even with the tax and customs receipts, the Palestinian leadership has a deficit every month of $50 million to $60 million. Saudi Arabia has pledged $100 million, and some states, such as Qatar, have promised a few million dollars more to get the Palestinian Authority through to the end of February.

The World Bank trust fund withheld a payment of $60 million in December when the Palestinian Authority broke its commitments of fiscal responsibility. The money is mostly from the European Union, and there is pressure from Washington to pay the money anyway.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are dealing with the embarrassing fallout from a major corruption scandal among Fatah leaders of the Palestinian Authority that Abbas ordered kept quiet until the elections were over.

The Palestinian attorney general, Ahmed al-Meghani, revealed a corruption scandal Sunday that could involve billions in stolen public funds. He said he had made 25 arrests and issued warrants for others.

The Palestinian and Israeli press were full of speculation today about top officials who have fled the territories since Hamas won Jan. 25. One suspect is Sami Ramlawi, former director general of the Finance Ministry, who is believed to be in Jordan; another, Harbi Sansour, head of the petroleum authority, is under arrest.

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