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U.S. backing for Palestinian unity deal rattles Israel

by ron kampeas , jta

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The new Palestinian unity government brought together rivals Hamas and Fatah, but it has opened a divide between allies Israel and the United States.

“I’m deeply troubled by the announcement that the United States will work with the Palestinian government backed by Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said June 3 in an interview with the Associated Press.

The Obama administration’s announcement this week that it would continue working with and funding the Palestinian Authority under the new Hamas-backed unity government appears to have taken Israel aback. It represents something of a shift for the United States, which previously had voiced sympathy for Israeli concerns about the Palestinian unity government.

Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah, at head of table, leads first  meeting of new Palestinian unity government on June 3. photo/jta-flash90-issam rimawi
Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah, at head of table, leads first meeting of new Palestinian unity government on June 3. photo/jta-flash90-issam rimawi
Analysts said the sharpness of the Israeli reaction should be seen in the context of anxieties that this and other U.S. moves could leave Israel isolated on vital matters.

“Take a step back and look at the trend line to see Israelis are deeply concerned about a nuclear Iran and the Americans’ engagement with Iran,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “We’re now looking at another situation where an illicit actor that endangers Israel is being rehabilitated.”

On June 2, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a government of technocrats that has the backing of his Fatah party, which is pre-eminent in the West Bank, and Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that governs Gaza.

Abbas said the new government would abide by peace agreements and recognize Israel, although Hamas continues to reject both principles.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the June 2 daily briefing for reporters that the United States would continue to deal with the new government and that funding would continue.

“At this point, it appears that President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas,” she said. “Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions.”

The willingness to treat the new government no differently from the old one, which had no Hamas influence, came as a surprise. In a statement over the weekend, Psaki had said that Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his concern about the new government in a phone call to Abbas.

Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, posted his reaction to Facebook within hours of the State Department announcement of the U.S. position.

“Israel is deeply disappointed with the State Department’s comments today on the Palestinian unity government with Hamas, a terrorist organization responsible for the murder of many hundreds of Israelis, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities, and which remains committed to Israel’s destruction,” Dermer wrote.

He suggested that the technocrats provided cover to terrorists.

“This Palestinian unity government is a government of technocrats backed by terrorists, and should be treated as such,” Dermer added. “With suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office, it should not be business as usual.”

Israeli envoys rarely publicly rebuke U.S. administrations.

Netanyahu last month formally suspended peace negotiations with Abbas in part because of the announcement that governance talks with Hamas were underway. His security Cabinet reiterated that posture in a unanimous vote June 2 and said in a statement that it would consider sanctions against the Palestinian Authority.

Congressional lawmakers from both parties said Hamas backing for the government could jeopardize U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority — between $400 million and $500 million a year.

There was, however, a subtle difference in the statements between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with Democrats stopping short of calls for an immediate cutoff.

Major American Jewish groups also stopped short of calling for an immediate cutoff in funds but backed a review of funding for the Palestinian Authority.

“U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. “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.”

But Lara Friedman, the director of government relations for Americans for Peace Now, said the new government likely falls within the law.

“With no Hamas members inside the new government, no evidence of Hamas having ‘undue influence’ over it and clear statements from Abbas that it will respect the Quartet conditions, the fact is that there is simply nothing in law requiring aid to the PA to cease,” she said.


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