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(photo credit: IDF [file])
Opinions and ideas abound concerning America's response to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government. One source of ideas that matters a great deal, the United States Congress, has weighed in.
One bill is in the House of Representatives, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) last month, and this week the Senate offered its version of that bill, introduced by Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Joe Biden (D-DE). While votes on these bills have not yet taken place, they offer a good platform for assessing what actions the United States should and should not take regarding the new Palestinian government.
It is nearly universally agreed in the US that our government should not fund Hamas or a Hamas-led government in any fashion. The Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which promotes active American engagement in achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, supports firm action by the Bush administration and by Congress in response to Hamas's rise to power.
The primary objective of such action, IPF believes, must be to advance all parties toward the goal of an Israeli and a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security, at the same time that it prevents the PA and other Palestinian groups from using American dollars to further the goals or methods of Hamas.
REGRETTABLY, the two bills in Congress - the one in the House, more so - do not meet this critical criterion, and need to be improved so that they do. They would curb our government's ability to act effectively in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, where flexibility, agile diplomacy and careful communication are required. Given the vital role the United States must play in this arena, this is a serious flaw that would work against the national security interests of the US and Israel.
The House bill would, among other things: make it illegal to give direct aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), cut funding for all other programs except humanitarian programs unless the president provides a national security waiver, cut all ties to the PA, forbid PA affiliates to travel anywhere outside of a small area around the UN, and make it illegal for the PA to have any official representation in Washington. These rules would apply unless the PA and Hamas meet a host of conditions. The White House and State Department oppose this bill.
The new Senate bill allows the American government a little more leeway in dealing with Palestinians and has somewhat less stringent requirements for the new Palestinian government.
A weakness of both bills is the great difficulty the US would have supporting programs sponsored by non-governmental organizations in such areas as job creation, women's education, infrastructure-building, micro-enterprise and other ways to improve the quality of life of Palestinians. Such programs, particularly when associated with groups that believe in a two-state solution and that renounce violence, should be funded because they provide Palestinians with pride and hope and are essential to the eventual achievement of two states living side by side in peace and security.
LEADERS IN Congress and the Bush administration - and of American Jewish organizations pressing Congress to act (too hastily, in my view) - must keep in mind that the Palestinian perception of American actions will help determine whether or not these actions are effective. If American measures are viewed as punitive, they could subvert our country's goals of attaining a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promoting peace and democracy in the Middle East.
Therefore, US policy - and any Congressional legislation - should:
â€¢ buttress the US position that there should be no engagement with Hamas until it recognizes Israel, agrees to adhere to existing agreements with Israel, and ends violence;
â€¢ make certain US funds are not used to advance the goals or methods of Hamas;
â€¢ assure that humanitarian assistance is provided to those Palestinians who need it, with specific plans for monitoring US funds;
â€¢ provide opportunities and inducements to Palestinians to publicly commit to achieving a two-state solution using nonviolent means and accepting the State of Israel, and allow for engaging with those Palestinians who make such a commitment;
â€¢ react to Hamas's ideology and deeds. The US must strive to isolate Hamas as long as it holds fast to its rejectionist ideology and refuses to accept Israel's right to exist. At the same time, we need to consider the possibility that Hamas will continue to refrain from terrorist attacks even without a formal agreement. Americans must appreciate just how important it is to Israelis that their personal safety and daily normalcy are maintained. An informal truce with a Hamas-led PA would not be enough, and we ought to be concerned that Hamas will take advantage of this period of quiet to boost its military capacity. But a truce is also not something to be dismissed.
â€¢ Support Palestinian democracy and reform. America's response to Hamas's election must not be perceived by Palestinians as a rebuke. This could make them veer away from democracy and reform and allow Hamas to claim that only it is able to face down American power, thereby bolstering those Palestinians who do not wish to recognize and negotiate with Israel.
THE CHANGES within the new Palestinian government - and even within Hamas - that these actions are intended to stimulate cannot be achieved overnight. While pressure on Hamas is absolutely critical, it is also important to allow the internal political processes within Palestinian society to develop.
The writer is president of the Israel Policy Forum and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.