US denies holding backchannel talks with Hamas

State Department urges Israel to reconsider withholding PA tax revenues; Ashton reportedly ‘shocked’ by Liberman statement comparing Europe’s stance on Mashaal speech to Holocaust era inaction

US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland (photo credit: US Department of State)
US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland (photo credit: US Department of State)

US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland denied on Wednesday that the US is secretly holding talks with Hamas.

“There have been some bizarre claims out there that Hamas has a back channel to the US Government or that the US Government is dealing with ex-officials to have some kind of a back channel to Hamas. I want to say here that these assertions are completely untrue. There is no such back channel. And our position on Hamas has not changed,” said Nuland in a press briefing.

Nuland added that “recent remarks by Hamas leaders during Khaled Mashaal’s visit to Gaza reinforce the fact that Hamas is not a partner for peace. And unless Hamas unambiguously accepts the Quartet principles for peace, it cannot be a partner in any negotiations.”

Nuland was referring to a speech Mashaal, Hamas’s political leader, gave in Gaza Saturday, at a ceremony marking the terror organization’s 25th anniversary. “We are not giving up any inch of Palestine. It will remain Islamic and Arab for us and nobody else. Jihad and armed resistance is the only way,” said Mashaal during his first visit to the Gaza Strip after years in exile.

Israeli leaders have made the speech calling for Israel’s destruction and the world’s lack of condemnation of it a major talking point in recent days, as Israel faces a wave of international censure over announcements it will advance construction plans in the West Bank and particularly in a controversial strip of land known as E1, connecting Jerusalem with the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman blasted the international community for its “deafening silence” in the wake of Mashaal’s speech, with Liberman comparing the mild response in recent days to European countries’ failure to act to save Jews from extermination by Nazis during the Holocaust.

“As far as they’re concerned, the destruction of Israel is a matter of course,” said Liberman in a response to a statement by EU foreign Ministers that condemned Israel for its settlement construction plans but did not heavily rebuke Mashaal for avowedly seeking Israel’s destruction.

According to an Israel Radio report Wednesday, Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Ireland opposed an official condemnation of Mashaal’s incitement-filled speech at a meeting of the body’s foreign council Monday.

In the end, the statement included a brief rebuke of Hamas’s call for Israel’s destruction, after an 11th-hour intervention by Germany and the Czech Republic, Israel Radio reported.

Liberman’s words drew sharp criticism. “The comparison Liberman made is infuriating and hurtful to all Europeans,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Kocijancic said Ashton was “shocked” when she heard what he had said. “Europe’s commitment to Israel’s security cannot be doubted.”

Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-on reportedly sent a missive to Ashton, expressing dismay at Liberman’s statement. Gal-on condemned his comparison and accused him of ruining Israel’s ties with Europe to serve his political interests head of January’s elections.

Nuland also addressed Israel’s decision to withhold tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, a decision it announced in the wake of the Palestinians’ successful bid to gain nonmember observer status at the UN, last month.

“We are making clear to the Government of Israel that we think funding of the Palestinian Authority is necessary, and that it should work with the PA to address the issues that they have, and that all sides need to take steps to reduce tensions, to build trust, to produce the kind of climate that’s going to get us back to direct talks,” said Nuland.

Earlier Wednesday Liberman said Israel would withhold some NIS 450 million at least until March. The money will be used toward paying off a NIS 700 million debt the PA owes the Israel Electric Corporation.

“Israel is not prepared to accept unilateral steps by the Palestinian side, and anyone who thinks they will achieve concessions and gains this way is wrong,” Liberman said, according to Reuters. “The Palestinians can forget about getting even one cent in the coming four months; in four months’ time we will decide how to proceed.”

Nuland said the State Department is also working with the US Congress to release foreign aid to the PA.

“We’re continuing to work with Congress, we’re continuing to make our views known about this, that we think this money is important. We think it supports important work by the Palestinian Authority and to support the needs of the Palestinian people and it should move,” said Nuland.

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