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Palestinian Unity Causing Political Ripples in Washington

WASHINGTON, Jun 5 2014 (IPS) - The announcement this week of a new Palestinian unity government was greeted with cautious optimism by most of the world, outside of Israel. In the United States, however, it set off political rumblings that threaten to swell into a storm.

The decision by the Obama Administration to maintain its relationship with the Palestinian Authority for the time being drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I’m deeply troubled by the announcement that the United States will work with the Palestinian government backed by Hamas,” Netanyahu told The Associated Press.

But the United States decided that the mere support by Hamas of a technocratic government was not sufficient reason to cut off aid and contact with the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. position is far more sceptical, however, than those of the European Union, United Nations, Russia, China, India, Turkey, France and United Kingdom, all of whom explicitly supported the unity government.

“Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to ensure that it upholds the principles that President Abbas reiterated” – U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki

The matter may become even more controversial in the future for the United States. Unlike any of the other countries which are maintaining their support of the Palestinian Authority, the United States has laws which limit support for a Palestinian government that is either controlled or “unduly influenced” by Hamas. That is not currently the case, but it very well could be if Palestinian elections, which were a part of the unity agreement, are held.

Following Netanyahu’s criticism of the U.S. stance, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) urged the United States to reconsider its relationship to the Palestinian Authority.

“(President Abbas) chose to align with Hamas.” AIPAC said in a statement. “U.S. law is clear – no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.  We now urge Congress to conduct a thorough review of continued U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority to ensure that the law is completely followed and implemented.”

Since none of the ministers or current members of the Palestinian cabinet are also members of Hamas, there is no legal obligation to review, much less suspend, aid to the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, if there were a real threat to aid to the Palestinian Authority, it is not clear that AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups would support it.

In the past, such groups have been reluctant to see aid to the Palestinian Authority cut, fearing that the likely result would be its collapse, which would greatly magnify the security and administrative burden on Israel, which would have to administer such matters in the West Bank directly.

Nonetheless, members of Congress are not happy that the United States was so quick to approve of the new Palestinian government. Eric Cantor, a Republican and the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, called on President Obama to immediately suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority pending a review.

“The Administration, in consultation with Congress, should initiate an immediate review of this new government,” Cantor’s statement said. “Until such time that it is determined that assistance to this so-called technocratic government is consistent with our own interests, principles, and laws it is incumbent on the Administration to suspend U.S. assistance.”

While Republican baiting on this issue was surely expected, Obama will face an uphill battle even within his own party. Representative Nita Lowey, the Ranking Democrat on the important House Appropriations Committee, offered only tepid support to Obama’s position. “As long as Hamas rejects the Quartet principles and the existence of the State of Israel, United States funding for this unity government is in jeopardy,” Lowey said.

“I still believe that the United States should continue its policy of promoting negotiations to achieve an independent state for the Palestinian people living side by side with Israel in peace and security,” she added.

The 2014 Appropriations Act clearly does limit the aid that the United States can give to the P. Palestinian Authority if Hamas controls or “has undue influence” over it. But the current government does not meet that standard.

“The law as currently drafted at least maintains the pretence of an opening to Palestinian reconciliation,” Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans For Peace Now told IPS. “It in no way threatens or requires punishing the PA for simply seeking such reconciliation; to the extent that negative ramifications for reconciliation are threatened, such ramifications are triggered by the character of the government or entity that comes out of reconciliation efforts, not the fact of the reconciliation itself.”

That is completely consistent with the U.S. stance, as articulated by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki: “Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to ensure that it upholds the principles that President Abbas reiterated today.”

It is unlikely that Congress is going to take immediate action, but the battle lines ahead of a Palestinian election have been drawn. If the technocratic Palestinian Authority continues indefinitely, Congress may not go beyond bombastic statements. But if an election is held and, as is overwhelmingly likely, Hamas wins a significant presence in the new government, Congress will have the tools it needs to press for a major cut in aid to the Palestinians. It is clear that this is not something the Obama Administration desires, and many believe it is not good strategy.

“Serious analysts of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have long understood that a permanent, negotiated settlement would require agreement between a legitimate and popular Israeli government and a legitimate and popular Palestinian Authority,” Professor Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University told IPS.

“Israel’s long-term security would be best guaranteed by the creation of a competent, authoritative, and generally legitimate Palestinian government that could keep order and protect the Palestinians against both Israeli repression and also their own extremists.  Such a government could not happen, however, as long as there were deep divisions between Fatah and Hamas.  Accordingly, the unity agreement is a useful preliminary step.”

For the moment, pragmatism seems to be trumping jingoism. But the harsh rhetoric that Israel and its supporters in the United Stated have employed suggests that if the Palestinians do take the next step and actually elect a new government, the Obama Administration may be unable to maintain its relationship with them.

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