WASHINGTON – A ceremony broadcast out of Ramallah on Monday, inducting little-known technocrats into a new Palestinian Authority cabinet with the blessing of Hamas, drew two disparate responses from Washington, depending on where you stood that day.
On Capitol Hill, reaction to the formation of a Palestinian unity government had the rare effect of unifying congressmen from across party lines.
US aid to the Palestinians must be reviewed, lawmakers said with one voice, in accordance with laws passed by Congress since 2006 that require a cut in aid should Hamas play a role in the Palestinian government.
Leaders of every relevant committee, in both the majority and the minority, agreed that the law is clear. Indeed, it is succinct: appropriations legislation stipulates the delivery of aid not on the formal appointment of Hamas officials, but on involvement of Hamas in the government, and on whether Hamas – designated a terrorist organization – is sharing power in its formation and in its resulting governance.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, and even J Street – considered the most liberal of the major American Jewish organizations in Washington – issued statements of caution, calling for a review of Hamas’s role going forward.
And yet the United States, as represented abroad by the executive branch, swiftly extended its hand to the unity government. The current cabinet is an interim body, the State Department noted; the Obama administration expects elections within months.
“Most of the key cabinet positions, including the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, and the finance minister, are the same as in the prior government,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday. “They are all technocrats unaffiliated with any political party and are responsible for facilitating new elections.”
“President [Mahmoud] Abbas made clear that this new technocratic government was committed to the principles of nonviolence, negotiations, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and Quartet principles and prior obligations between the two parties, and finally, to continue security coordination with Israel,” Harf continued.
Effectively, Hamas was given the power to endorse candidates not directly affiliated with the party, but whom the party approved of nevertheless; and the US administration has determined this is not, by definition, to constitute power-sharing. Congress disagrees, and according to multiple Israeli officials and Hill aides, hearings on that disagreement are guaranteed in the coming weeks.
Congress does not have much in leverage to stop the State Department from continuing aid to the Palestinians.
Funds for 2014 have already been appropriated, and access to those monies now goes through Foggy Bottom.
But the administration does, traditionally, notify Congress before delivering each tranche of aid. Congress then has the opportunity to approve each package. The administration might argue that some funding – security reinforcement in the West Bank, for example – is too important to Israel to cut off.
Furthermore, funds have not yet been set aside for 2015. And that extension of aid will rely on a host of factors – primarily, the prospects, execution and outcome of long-delayed Palestinian elections, which will likely result in some form of formal power-sharing with Hamas.
House appropriations officials are currently in Israel to discuss the future of the aid to the Palestinians.
The administration was perfectly in line with its partners in the international community – the Quartet powers all endorsed the interim government, noting its commitment to the core principles as outlined by Harf on Tuesday, and by the US government ad infinitum. The alternative to working with the government is shunning its leaders; and more access is better than less, State Department officials contended.
The true test will come when Congress chooses whether or not to renew aid, based on actions taken by this interim Palestinian government, interpreted by a State Department that has no desire to see the PA unravel on this president’s watch. Monday’s divergence was less defining than many decisive moments to come.