Despite Israel's Stance, U.S. Likely to Cooperate With Palestinian Unity Government

White House official says U.S. can't 'engineer every member of this [Palestinian] government.'

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas , Amman, Jordan,  March 26, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas , Amman, Jordan, March 26, 2014.Credit: AP

Despite Israel’s position, the U.S. administration is tending toward cooperating with the soon-to-be-formed Palestinian unity government, even if Hamas as an organization does not accept the conditions of the Mideast Quartet to recognize Israel, honor previous agreements and abandon violence.

A senior White House official told Haaretz that as long as the platform of the future government meets the conditions of the Quartet - the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia - the U.S. will be satisfied.

“We want a Palestinian government that upholds those principles,” said the White House official. “In terms of how they build this government, we are not able to orchestrate that for the Palestinians. We are not going to be able to engineer every member of this government.”

At the meeting of White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah about two weeks ago, and at the meeting between Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London last Wednesday, the Palestinian president explained that the new government will be committed to his diplomatic program and will abide by the conditions of the Quartet. Abbas also remarked that the move will not undermine any future negotiations with Israel. Abbas’ words reassured the Americans.

The American position is very similar to that announced last week by the 28 foreign ministers of the European Union. At the conclusion of their monthly meeting the foreign ministers emphasized that “the EU looks forward to continuing its support, including through direct financial assistance, for a possible new Palestinian government composed of independent figures. That government should uphold the principle of non-violence, and remain committed to achieving a two-state solution and to a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepting previous agreements and obligations, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist.”

The Israeli position is far more hawkish than that of the Americans and the Europeans. According to the decision of the diplomatic-security cabinet, which was made a few weeks ago in the wake of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, Israel will not conduct negotiations and will not cooperate with a Palestinian government “backed by Hamas.” The Israeli condition for a change in this position is a declaration by Hamas to the effect that the movement accepts the conditions of the Quartet.

The dispute between Israel on the one hand and the United States and the EU on the other on this subject, which for now is limited to discussions behind closed doors, is expected to erupt publicly immediately after the formation of the new Palestinian government. Senior Hamas and Fatah officials have said in recent days that the new government will be formed as soon as next week and will be sworn in by President Abbas by the end of the month.

According to assessments, the sides are close to an agreement on the identity of the members of the government of technocrats, who will be officials and experts who are not members of the two organizations. According to a report in Al Ayyam newspaper on Monday morning, President Abbas will probably appoint the incumbent prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, to head the new unity government. According to the report, Hamas is not opposed to the appointment, but senior Fatah officials suggested to Abbas that he himself head the government, thereby preventing any Israeli attempt to impose an international boycott against the new government. In such a case Abbas will appoint Hamdallah deputy prime minister.

A senior Fatah official told Haaretz that Abbas and Hamas representatives are being cautious about presenting names of ministers who could provide the international community and the Quartet with an excuse not to recognize the government. “We don’t want another siege and additional sanctions, so we have no intention of presenting a government with people who were active in the diplomatic or security leadership of the two movements, and regarding whom there is no international consensus,” said the Fatah official.

While the sides are close to agreement on the distribution of the civilian positions and portfolios, when it comes to security the picture is more complicated. A Hamas source told Haaretz that his organization wants to adopt the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the armed organization is part of the political system and a partner in the government, without giving up an autonomous military force.

“If anyone expects Hamas to hand over its missile system to the PA he is mistaken,” said the source. “Hamas wants to shed ministerial responsibility for civilian issues but to maintain its power as a popular resistance organization.”

According to Hamas sources, one of the problems that remains unsolved is the security coordination between the new government and Israel. Mahmoud Abbas declared that as long as he is in charge the security coordination will continue, but Hamas is opposed to a continuation of the interrogations and questionings of their West Bank members in the facilities of the Palestinian National Security Force.

Another issue in question is holding elections for the presidency and the parliament towards the end of the year. Even if a national unity government is established, it’s not at all certain that the sides will reach an agreement on a date for elections.

According to the report in Al Ayyam, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is interested in heading the parliament in the event that a national unity government is formed. The report claimed that the move attests to the fact that Hamas is not interested in holding parliamentary elections within six months, as decided in the reconciliation agreement.

Despite the optimism on the part of senior Fatah and Hamas officials, the Palestinian factions have doubts about the success of the move, and believe that even if it is implemented it will be for only a limited period. The common assessment on the West Bank and in Gaza is that the reconciliation was a product of the distress of both sides - the PA that is in crisis due to the dead end in negotiations with Israel, and Hamas because of pressure from the Egyptian government and the cessation of aid from Arab countries.

The secretary general of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh, revealed in an interview with the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad that there is still a dispute regarding the senior portfolios such as the interior and the finance ministries, as well on issues relating to responsibility for security on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Hawatmeh added that the sides have not reached agreement about the identity of Abbas’ deputy and his powers. He also expressed anger at the fact that the two organizations are divvying up the portfolios between themselves without taking into account the other factions that are Palestine Liberation Organization members.

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