JERUSALEM - Israeli officials said yesterday that they had transferred $100 million in withheld revenues to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to the move during a meeting with Abbas last month. Israel began withholding about $50 million monthly in taxes and customs duties last year after the extremist Hamas movement took control of the Palestinian government following elections.
Israel described the financial transfer as part of an effort to bolster Abbas, a relative moderate from Hamas' main rival, Fatah. The $100 million represents less than one-third of the money Israel has collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority but refused to relinquish. Israeli officials said the money was being channeled to Abbas' office rather than to any ministry of the Palestinian Authority to maintain the embargo against Hamas, which Israel and much of the West consider a terrorist group.
"The money is not to go to the Hamas-controlled government," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "The money is to support the Palestinian people, and [Abbas] will be distributing it."
Palestinian officials said the funds would help pay companies that supply Palestinian hospitals, schools and farms.
The transfer, one of a series of concessions promised by Olmert during the Dec. 23 summit, could boost the Palestinian leader in his political standoff with Hamas. Despite months of negotiations, Fatah and Hamas haven't agreed on terms of a power-sharing arrangement that would break the Western aid embargo.
Abbas is expected to meet today in Syria with Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas political leader, amid efforts to break the months-long impasse.
Abbas previously declared talks at a dead end, saying he would call early elections for the presidency and parliament. But mediators have continued trying to coax the two sides into agreeing on a joint government under terms that could satisfy the West.
Mohammed Dahlan, an Abbas confidant, said yesterday that the president might meet with Mashaal but would not engage in negotiations. Abbas said yesterday he would proceed with elections if the latest efforts failed.
Past talks snagged over the distribution of ministerial posts and Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel. Western nations demand that the government accept the Jewish state's right to exist, renounce violence, and agree to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Mashaal is considered more strident than some Hamas counterparts in the Gaza Strip and has torpedoed past proposals. He also holds veto power over a proposed prisoner swap under which Israel would free jailed Palestinians in return for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas gunmen in June.
In another development yesterday, Israeli officials said Defense Minister Amir Peretz had frozen plans to build housing for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The planned construction of up to 100 homes at a former base, called Maskiot, drew international criticism and protests from Palestinian officials and Israeli peace advocates.