SALZBURG, Austria – The European Union on Friday threatened to cut off aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government "unless it seeks peace by peaceful means" — its strongest signal to the new leadership.
The EU foreign ministers reviewed financial aid to Palestinians but announced no immediate halt to funds as long as Hamas has not formed a government.
Once that has happened, said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, "we will look at the program" to see what Hamas thinks of the 'road map' to Middle East peace drafted by the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Hamas — which won the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections but is considered a terrorist group by the EU — must recognize Israel, renounce violence and endorse all agreements previous Palestinian leaders have signed with Israel.
"We want to remain a reliable partner for the Palestinian people, but we will not go soft on our principles," she said. "Money will not flow to the new (Palestinian) authority unless it seeks peace by peaceful means."
In the margins of the EU ministerial meeting, officials said the EU was giving Hamas some time to abandon its strident anti-Israel views so European assistance can continue to ease the economic plight of the Palestinian people. They said one way for Hamas to do so was to endorse a 2002 peace initiative of Arab nations that includes a recognition of Israel's right to exist.
The 25 EU foreign ministers grappled with the question of how Europe can remain the largest donor for the Palestinians without any of their aid ending up in the hands of a government led by a faction both the United States and the EU consider a terrorist organization.
EU foreign policy and security affairs chief Javier Solana presented them with an update of current aid programs he co-wrote with Ferrero-Waldner. The paper offered no funding options, nor a recommendation for an immediate cutoff of EU aid to the Palestinians.
In 2005, EU governments and the EU executive commission together gave about $600 million to the Palestinian Authority.
Officials said half of that came from the European Commission, whose annual aid fluctuates.
Last year, it contributed $334 million, but 2005 was an exceptional year with Israel pulling out of the Gaza area and Palestinians readying for an election campaign.
EU aid for the Palestinian Authority includes funds to pay for salaries and administration costs.
Before the EU foreign ministers' meeting, a Foreign Office spokesman in London said Britain was not prepared to fund or deal with terrorists, but added that the Palestinian people should not be punished.
This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged the group to respond positively to international calls to recognize Israel and start a dialogue with the Jewish state.
French President Jacques Chirac said in Saudi Arabia this week he was confident Hamas will recognize Israel and renounce violence after Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister-designate, forms a government later this month.
On Feb. 27, the EU granted $143 million in urgent aid for Palestinians before a Hamas-led government takes office. The aid was designed to avoid the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
The United States has already ruled out money for the Hamas government and is considering continued financing without money going to Hamas.