President Barack Obama has spoken more forcefully than any of his predecessors about the importance of a Palestinian state. His eagerness to advance that goal undoubtedly influenced his introduction of the unprecedented and unrealistic position − then adopted by the Palestinian Authority − to make a total Israeli construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a precondition for further peace negotiations (though progress was scant following an earlier freeze). Despite Obama’s goodwill toward the Palestinians, recent events suggest this may be an important turning point in the relationship between the PA and the United States.
Last week, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad proposed the establishment of an interim Palestinian unity government that would include Hamas, allowing the latter to maintain control over the Gaza Strip until the legislative and presidential elections tentatively scheduled for later this year. While such a move probably would further push off any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (neither Hamas nor Israel is willing to negotiate directly), the elections presumably would let Palestinian voters decide the outcome of the five-year-old Fatah-Hamas governance stalemate in the PA while enhancing the PA’s democratic credentials.
It has long been argued that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to strike a meaningful, enforceable peace agreement with a bifurcated Palestinian government led by officials whose terms of office are legally fuzzy. PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ term was due to end in 2009, and Fayyad was appointed (by Abbas), not elected. While an interim arrangement with Hamas might lead to more representative Palestinian government, Fayyad’s offer, especially if Hamas accepts it, puts the Obama administration in a difficult position.
The United States provided over half a billion dollars in aid to the Palestinians in fiscal year 2010. It is unclear whether the U.S. legally can continue to provide funding (or other services, like training) to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization. In addition, the Republican-held House of Representatives in particular would make political hay of Obama if he were to support continuation of such funding. Such a coalition would also conflict with the principles of the Quartet’s “road map.”
On the other hand, it is possible that the proposal is an effort by the PA − maybe even quietly coordinated with the Obama administration − to “normalize” and legitimize Hamas. The thinking behind such a move could be that it would nudge Hamas away from violence, lead to the eventual renewal of peace talks, and present Congress with the dilemma of whether to cut off American investment in the largely successful state-building efforts of the ostensibly progressive Fayyad government. However, such a scenario is extremely unlikely. Fayyad is in no hurry to grant legitimacy to Hamas. Moreover, given the current partisan hostility of American politics and the still raw embarrassment in Washington over its long-standing support of unsavory regional regimes, it is hard to believe that either the PA or the administration would want to test Congress in this way.
Nevertheless, last week it also was reported that the PA was boycotting officials from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem as well as American journalists. A senior Fatah official told AFP, “We will cut our relationship with all American institutions, including with [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and we will not take any help or money from them.”
The Palestinian leadership might have looked at last month’s American veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel − together with the many recent, and frankly, hasty assessments of America’s waning influence in the Middle East, especially following the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak and the arguably timid initial response to the bloodbath in Libya − and concluded that the United States now is more of a burden than a help in advancing Palestinian national goals.
Parallel to the supposed American decline, other states recently have intensified both their vocal support for a Palestinian state and criticism of Israel. More than half a dozen South American countries have recognized Palestine explicitly, while the governments of France, Spain and Ireland have upgraded Palestinian diplomatic delegations in those countries, with other European countries expected to follow suit. Among the 14 states supporting the UN Security Council resolution were regional powers (and Israel trade partners) Germany, Brazil and India.
Could it be that the PA, encouraged by this outpouring of support, and troubled by America’s regional image problem and closeness to Israel, has made a strategic decision to move away from the United States and put its fate more squarely in the hands of Europe and the UN?
Breaking ranks with the United States might be appealing in the short run, or it could be a symbolic gesture to assuage angry public opinion in the wake of the American veto in the UN.
However, it is difficult to believe that the PA could afford to do so over the longer term, both financially and politically. Even with the impressive economic growth in the West Bank last year, a disproportionate number of Palestinians are employed directly by the PA, which remains heavily dependent on foreign aid − much, though not most of it American. In addition, the U.S. veto notwithstanding, no other state or institution brings the same mix of influence, credibility and resources to the negotiating table.
Surely PA negotiators still believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to convince or pressure Israel to take chances on the road to an agreement. Betting against America in general and Obama in particular seems an odd choice.
For now, though, the question may be moot, as Hamas has not accepted Fayyad’s offer. Considering recent Palestinian public opinion polls, which are far more favorable to Fatah than to Hamas, the latter is probably in no hurry to expose itself to electoral scrutiny.
Jonathan Schachter is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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