The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of frozen tax funds to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a step to bolster the moderate leader in his standoff against the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The vote came a day ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meeting in Egypt Monday with Abbas, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The summit is designed as a high-profile display of support for the Palestinian president against his Hamas rivals, who seized control of the Gaza Strip in a brutal rout of Abbas' Fatah movement earlier this month.
The infighting has left the Palestinians with two governments _ Abbas' new government in the West Bank, and the Hamas rulers in Gaza.
The main proposal at Sunday's Cabinet meeting was a gradual release of some $550 million tax money that Israel has withheld from the Palestinians since Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Olmert asked that the funds be released "to support in a phased process the new Palestinian government, which is not a Hamas government."
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Sunday's vote
Meeting participants said the proposal passed with an overwhelming majority; just two hardline ministers voted against it.
The money _ mostly customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians _ has been withheld in an unsuccessful bid to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence. Without the money, the Palestinian government has been unable to pay the salaries of its workers.
The Cabinet also discussed the removal of some of the hundreds of roadblocks Israel has erected throughout the West Bank, meeting participants said. The travel restrictions have been put in place on security grounds, though the Palestinians say they are excessive and punitive.
Similar gestures have been weighed in the past, and then, as now, Israel will demand in return that Abbas confront militants _ something he had been reluctant to do before Hamas rolled over Fatah security forces and wrested power in Gaza.
Since then, Abbas has acted with unprecedented force: He expelled Hamas from its coalition government with his Fatah
Olmert told the Cabinet that while Israel wants to boost Abbas, he also would lay out Israel's expectations at Monday's summit in Egypt.
"We shall present there our expectations from the opposite side, our demands on the issues of security and the war against terror, but definitely also our readiness to cooperate with the new government," he said.
He also cautioned his Cabinet not to expect major advances at the gathering.
"I don't want anyone to think we're on the brink of a dramatic breakthrough," Olmert said, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Not all Israeli Cabinet ministers are convinced Abbas will wrestle Hamas to the mat.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu party, said he would vote against any aid to Abbas. The new Fatah-led government has "no intention ... of arresting a single terror operative," he told Army Radio.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called on Abbas' new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to spend
"This is the money of the Palestinian people and everyone has the right to this money," he said.
Olmert said Israel will continue to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
He has expressed optimism Hamas' ouster from the Palestinian government removed the main stumbling block to renewed peace talks with the Palestinians. The prospect for re-energizing long-stalled peace talks is expected to be a major item at the Egypt summit.
During a meeting in Jordan, King Abdullah II told Abbas "the summit must be seized as an opportunity to formulate a clear timeline for a return to negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians, according to the royal palace.
An Israeli pullout from the West Bank _ a prerequisite for Palestinian statehood _ is unlikely, however, unless Abbas can ensure the evacuated territory won't be taken over by militants and used to launch attacks on Israel. Abbas' failure to do that in Gaza could make Israelis less inclined to risk a West Bank withdrawal.
The Hamas takeover of Gaza also complicates the case of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who has been held captive by Hamas-linked militants in the coastal territory for a year.
On Sunday, several hundred protesters gathered outside Israel's Parliament to mark the one-year anniversary of Shalit's capture.
Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, criticized the government for failing to win his son's release.
"If an entire country, its leaders...the sophisticated systems it has, satellites, drones, can't bring back a soldier from captivity after an entire year, and can't even get firm information about his condition and health, then we should all be worried," Shalit said at the rally.
Bagelblogger: Seems that with this decision Abbas's future will not be the only political future on the line. I find it surprising that Israel is so willing to support Abbas now, its not that I don't understand Israel's desire to isolate Hamas, it's just is Fatah really an alternative?
That there is no other choice or option between Hamas and Fatah is a sad reflection of the Palestinian states future directions.
WKRN Nashville: Israel Votes to release Taxes to Abbas
AP Amy Tebel Jerusalem
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