What’s behind it?
Buzzfeed reports that during the six-month run-up to this week’s announcement of a Fatah-Hamas unity government, Obama-administration officials were holding “secret back-channel talks with Hamas” to discuss its role in this government.
Buzzfeed quotes a “U.S. official familiar with the talks” as saying: “Our administration needed to hear from them that this unity government would move toward democratic elections, and toward a more peaceful resolution with the entire region.”
State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf told Buzzfeed: “These assertions are completely untrue. There is no such back channel. Our position on Hamas has not changed.”
In any case, very soon after the new Palestinian government was announced on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry told Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the administration would “work with the new Palestinian government while continuing to watch it closely.”
Israel expressed “deep disappointment.” Its ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, noted that Hamas is “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.” Netanyahu recorded a statement saying he was “deeply troubled” by the U.S. decision.
In a letter to Kerry, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk noted that: “Current U.S. law is clear—any government over which an unreformed Hamas exercises undue influence and which emerges from a Fatah/Hamas deal is not an appropriate recipient of U.S. assistance.”
For a few reasons—despite the State Department’s denial—the Buzzfeed report of secret U.S.-Hamas talks has considerable plausibility.
First, there is the alacrity with which Kerry announced the U.S. intention to “work with” the new government. Not even a day or two for deliberations before reaching a decision.
Second is the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, and the administration’s sympathy for that body is well known. The administration favored its takeover of Egypt from the deposed Mubarak regime, supported it during the year it was in power, and sharply objected to its removal by the Egyptian army backed by a massive popular revolt.
And third, the new Fatah-Hamas government appears carefully crafted to, as Rubio and Kirk put it, make an “end run around” U.S. law. It’s composed of 18 “technocratic” ministers with no explicit Hamas affiliation, and Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and the West Bank Palestinian Authority, announced that this government would uphold principles of recognizing Israel and avoiding violence.
Even so, as Lee Smith notes, U.S. acceptance of this government
is against the letter of U.S. law—indeed, a number of U.S. laws. The 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, for instance, prohibits any U.S. funds from going to Hamas, Hamas-controlled entities, or a power-sharing PA government that includes Hamas as a member, or results from an agreement with Hamas. Most recently, the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits “assistance to Hamas or any entity effectively controlled by Hamas, any power-sharing government of which Hamas is member, or that results from an agreement with Hamas and over which Hamas exercises undue influence.”
For the Obama administration, though, these may just be legal niceties. The new government is, indeed—as the “official” mentioned to Buzzfeed—supposed to hold democratic elections in both the West Bank and Gaza in six months, enabling both Fatah and Hamas to participate.
Neither the Obama administration nor the European Union—which, of course, also lost no time welcoming the new government—is likely, then, to heed a warning about it by veteran Israeli Arab-affairs analyst Ehud Yaari. Yaari’s warning carries special weight since he knows the turf well and is in no way a member of the Israeli right or a partisan of the Netanyahu government.
Yaari reports that
Hamas leaders held a number of meetings in recent weeks with Iranian officials in Tehran and Hezbollah leaders in Beirut. There, the group’s representatives were advised to adopt a more ambitious plan than merely defending Gaza, namely, by contesting Fatah in its own West Bank territory instead. Hezbollah’s modus operandi in Lebanon—which can be summed up as “add ballots to your bullets” —was pushed as a model to be emulated.
Yaari warns that this could lead to
[t]he emergence of a Hezbollah model in the Palestinian Authority…. If the current electoral and transitional timetable holds, by this time next year Hamas could have not only an intact military force and terrorist agenda in Gaza, but also a solid foothold in the West Bank and at least a say in—if not veto power over—[PA] decisions. In that case, a new system would take shape in the Palestinian territories in which an armed-to-the-teeth political party gradually overshadows the central government and begins to take over numerous institutions.
We may still be quite a way from that point; first, unlike all previous attempts at Fatah-Hamas “unity,” the current arrangement would have to hold water, leading up to the successful conduct of elections. But already at this stage, Yaari asserts,
Western countries quick to endorse the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation should be aware of what is really happening here: Instead of the PA regaining its “southern provinces” in Gaza, it is in fact Hamas reentering the “northern provinces” in the West Bank.
The questions Israel needs to confront are whether that development really troubles “Western countries,” and how it can go about handling the crisis without Western support.
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