As U.S. Influence Wanes, Its Only Choice Is Mideast Compromise

Washington may not want to alienate Palestinian unity government any more than it wants to turn its back on Lebanon or Egypt.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the government palace in Beirut on June 4.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the government palace in Beirut on June 4.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Washington has found a fine reason to explain its support for the Palestinian unity government: “There are no members of Hamas in the government,” the State Department spokeswoman said. This reason is far from convincing for AIPAC officials, who in a hurried statement issued last week reminded Congress that “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.”

Although American law is sacrosanct, it can be flexible in its sacredness. As the number of Washington’s friends in the Middle East steadily diminishes, along with the number of conflicts it can influence, the more it appears that severing relations with the Palestinian Authority can bring nothing but disaster. Israel may be able to exist without active cooperation with the PA, but when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks Washington to use its veto to stop the United Nations from recognizing a Palestinian state, or to use its influence to persuade PA President Mahmoud Abbas not to bring cases before the international court, the U.S. State Department had better have an open telephone line with the Palestinian government, even if that government includes Hamas.

As American influence wanes, the United States must at least make sure it still has access to the governments of the Middle East. Over the past year, Washington found itself almost out of the loop in Egypt. The Obama administration had to decide whether the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was an uprising or a military coup, in which case it is legally bound to cut off financial aid. The U.S. government was under heavy pressure to end financial assistance to Egypt, but when it turned out that Egypt was starting to make arms deals with Russia, the White House rushed to unfreeze the sale of military equipment. After all, some compromise is necessary if Washington wants Egypt to continue fighting terrorism in Sinai, use its influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when necessary and ally itself with the West.

That is how Washington retained its access to the Presidential Palace in Cairo; U.S. support of Morsi’s successor, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, also defused tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the United States has lost not just influence but also access in Syria. Its long and painful straddling of both sides of the fence — a stance that typifies the Obama administration’s policy today — contributed to that. Ultimately, Syrian President Bashar Assad presented Washington, and the rest of the world, with a fait accompli: Anyone who wanted to fight Al-Qaida would have to go through his palace, since from now on he was the elected president, and an elected president is not overthrown by foreign intervention.

In Lebanon, Washington forgot the rule that one must never collaborate with a government in which terrorist groups are partners. Lebanese governments have benefited from U.S. aid even when members of Hezbollah, which the United States defines as a terrorist organization, were numbered among their ministers. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beirut last week, he met with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam and pledged $290 million in aid for UN agencies assisting Syrian refugees in countries throughout the region, of which Lebanon will receive $51 million. At the same time, Hezbollah continues fighting for Assad, causing more refugees to flee to Lebanon. Absurd, no? Not when Washington is hanging by a thread, grasping at any straw.

The Obama administration’s actions in Lebanon may indicate what we can expect from Washington once the Palestinian government holds its parliamentary and presidential elections in another six months, assuming the elections go according to schedule. At that point, Washington will no longer be able to hide behind the claim that the government does not include members of Hamas. It may be assumed that even if the voters do not give Hamas a sweeping victory, they will give it a significant slice of the governmental pie.

At that point, if Washington wants to turn its back on those Hamas ministers, it will have to explain why it should reject the government of Palestine and its Hamas members even as it accepts the government of Lebanon, with its members from Hezbollah, and the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, which is headed toward reconciliation with the Taliban. Will Israel’s kicking and screaming be enough to convince Washington to give up its access to the Palestinian government? To judge by the positive U.S. response to the Palestinian unity government, it seems that Israel’s noise makes no impression. Washington has become accustomed to the racket.

But though the United States appears able to swallow cooperation with a Palestinian government based on a technicality in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how it will deal with the 1998 Wye River Accord, in which the Palestinians pledged to “ensure an effective legal framework is in place to criminalize, in conformity with the prior agreements, any importation, manufacturing or unlicensed sale, acquisition or possession of firearms, ammunition or weapons in areas under Palestinian jurisdiction.”

It was possible to treat the Palestinian Authority leniently on this matter as long as Hamas was in total control of Gaza. Now that the reconciliation is in the implementation stage, the questions surface at full force: Will the PA and Hamas security services join forces? Will Hamas’ weapons be taken into the storehouses of the joint security forces? Will Hamas agree to disarm at all?

The Obama administration will have to deal with this dilemma shortly, and its approach to Lebanon could indicate which way it will go. Quite a few decisions have been made regarding the disarming of Hezbollah, but Hezbollah continues to hold onto its weapons and Washington continues to provide aid.

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