The US on Friday welcomed Israel’s decision to release Palestinian tax funds which were frozen in January, calling Jerusalem’s move “an important step” to reduce tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“We certainly hope both sides would be able to build on this,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said, according to Reuters.
Tony Blair, the envoy for the Middle East Quartet which includes the US, EU, UN and Russia, also welcomed Friday’s announcement.
“It is absolutely the right decision both for the improvement of the conditions of Palestinians on the ground and for Israel,” he said. “I hope this will be the first of many steps, on both sides, that will mean we can work with renewed vigor to create the conditions for proper negotiations as we progress toward a two-state solution.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said revenues accumulated over three months, frozen by Israel since January in retaliation for a Palestinian move to join the International Criminal Court would be transferred after normal deductions for services.
But it did not say whether Israel would resume the normal monthly payment of around $127 million in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports. A spokesman for Netanyahu, contacted by AFP, would not say.
The Palestinians reacted with caution.
“Until now we haven’t received any money, nor have we officially been informed of anything,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Ihab Bseiso said. “We will wait to be informed officially; currently we are only hearing about this through the media.”
Shawqi al-Aissa, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said Israel should be held accountable for the “crime” of withholding the funds. “They stole our money and returning it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said in response to the decision to renew transfers.
Netanyahu’s office said the decision was made following the recommendation of Israel’s security establishment and because of humanitarian considerations. Israel has been under international pressure to release the frozen funds and Israeli security officials had warned that continuing to hold back the revenue could spark violence.
Under existing agreements, Israel collects taxes and customs on behalf of the Palestinians and then transfers the sums to them. It has withheld funds before as retaliation for unilateral Palestinian actions. Over the past three months it has collected hundreds of millions of dollars without transferring the funds.
Israel withheld the tax transfers it collects for the cash-strapped government of PA President Mahmoud Abbas after he applied to join the ICC — a move potentially paving the way for a war crimes investigation of Israel.
That and other moves prompted Abbas to complain that Israel had eroded the authority of his self-rule government in the West Bank to the point where it has “no real power here over anything.”
Abbas’s Palestinian Authority hasn’t been able to pay its civil servants and has warned that it is nearing collapse.
Netanyahu said in a statement that it was in Israel’s interest to transfer the money.
“Given the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, one must act responsibly and with due consideration alongside a determined struggle against extremist elements,” he said.
The move may be part of Netanyahu’s attempt to contain the international fallout from remarks he made ahead of elections earlier this month, when he said the current regional climate made it impossible to create a Palestinian state.
The remarks helped him to rally his right-wing base, and his subsequent victory virtually ensures he will form the next government. But the statements enraged Washington, which has pressed for a return to negotiations on a two-state solution to the conflict.
On Wednesday, the Palestinians will formally become members of the ICC and can proceed with legal action there against Israeli officials.
They have said they intended to pursue Israeli war crimes allegedly committed during last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel’s policy of building settlements on Palestinian lands.
The White House recently said it may withdraw crucial diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN Security Council as it reevaluates its position. Such a move could prove problematic for Israel if the Palestinians resubmit a draft resolution setting an end date for the Israeli occupation.
Meanwhile, Israel is facing a new French-sponsored draft resolution that would seek to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday that discussions on a text would start “in the coming days.”
In December, the Security Council rejected a resolution that would have set a deadline for reaching a final peace deal and pave the way to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Fabius told reporters that “obviously the two parties must discuss, but the discussion must be backed by an international effort.”
Israel has long maintained that direct talks with the Palestinians are the best framework for advancing peace talks and has bristled at UN involvement to set a timeframe for a deal.
The United States offered a cautious reaction to the French plan.
“We’re not going to get ahead of any decisions about what the United States would do with regard to potential action at the UN Security Council,” a US official told AFP.
“We continue to engage with key stakeholders, including the French, to find a way forward that advances the interest we and others share in a two-state solution,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.