The U.S. Embrace of the Palestinian Unity Government

For Washington, there are worse scenarios than dealing with a Palestinian government that includes a terrorist organization. Like dealing with no one at all.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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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
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Americans found themselves a successful rationale for their expected support of the Palestinian unity government. The State Department spokeswoman explained that there were no Hamas people sitting in the new Palestinian Authority government. That explanation fell far short of convincing the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, which in a rushed statement last week reminded Members of Congress that American law is clear on this point.

“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,” the statement read.

American law may be sacred, but even saints know how to perform acrobatics when necessary. And for Washington such acrobatics are necessary. America’s friends in the Middle East are evaporating. The number of conflicts in which the United States can exert its influence is on the decline. Under such circumstances, a break in contacts with the Palestinian Authority could be disastrous for Washington.

Israel may be able to exist without cooperating with the Palestinian Authority. But what will happen when some time in the future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks Washington to use its veto power at the UN Security Council in order to block recognition of a Palestinian state, or when Netanyahu wants America to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to file complaints against Israel in the International Court of Justice? It would be very much to the State Department’s advantage to have an open phone line to the Palestinian government even if Hamas is a partner in that government.

Over the past three years, Washington has understood that it can no longer choose its friends in the Middle East. Even more importantly, however, is that as its influence wanes, it must at least maintain access to regimes. Over the past year, the United States has found itself virtually shut out of Egypt. It deliberated to its detriment over whether or not to consider Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s seizure of power to be a revolution or a coup. The Obama administration managed to evade heavy pressure to halt aid to Egypt despite the U.S. law barring assistance to regimes that have seized power in a military coup. When it became clear that Egypt was pursuing possible arms deals with the Russians, the White House was quick to authorize military equipment sales to the Egyptians.

That’s because anyone who wants Egypt to continue to fight terrorist groups in Sinai, exert a positive influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and back a pro-Western alliance cannot allow itself to place the principles of democracy on too high a pedestal. Thanks to its support for al-Sissi, Washington had access to the presidential palace in Cairo, which it made good use of in alleviating tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Syria is another country where the Americans have lost not only a considerable amount of influence but also access. Ultimately Syrian President Bashar Assad presented Washington, and not just the Americans, with an established fact. Anyone who wants to fight Al-Qaida affiliates needs to do so via his presidential palace. Since this week’s presidential election, Assad is an “elected” president and an elected president is not toppled through foreign intervention.

When it comes to Lebanon, the Americans have long ignored the rule barring cooperation with a government in which terrorist organizations are a party. Lebanese governments have benefitted from American aid even though some of its ministers have been representatives of Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist organization. This week, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beirut, he granted half a billion dollars to Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam to aid Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon. At the same time, however, Hezbollah, which is a member of the government, continues to fight in Syria on the side of Assad and in the process is causing additional refugees to flee to Lebanon. Absurd? Not when Washington is hanging by a thread to preserve its access in the region.

The twists and turns of American policy in Lebanon also apparently enable us to deduce what its policy will be in Palestine when the Palestinians elect a parliament and a president in another six months, provided things go smoothly. Then Washington will not be able to hide behind the argument that the elected government does not include Hamas representatives. The results of the election can be anticipated. Even if Hamas doesn’t score a sweeping victory, it will have a substantial presence in the government.

Then Washington will have to explain why it thinks it’s all right to deal with a Lebanese government to which Hezbollah is a party; why a democratically elected Afghan government that is reconciling with the Taliban is a proper government, while a Palestinian government with Hamas is out of bounds. Is the fact that Israel will kick and scream sufficient to convince the United States to forgo access to the Palestinian government? Washington’s initial positive response to the Palestinian government of national unity seems to suggest that the noise coming from Israel doesn’t disturb the Americans’ sensitive ears any more. They’ve already gotten used to it.

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