Washington: The US's PA problem

Staunch declarations aside, the US administration is liable to find itself in a difficult maneuvering position where turning its back on Hamas is concerned.

The sudden rise to power of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority was the talk of the town in the American capital for almost a week. The media focused on trying to figure out what Hamas is and how it managed to win a landslide victory; think tanks scurried to arrange symposia and put together policy papers analyzing the new situation; members of Congress came out with a variety of initiatives; and the administration went into emergency mode - taking the lead in rejecting Hamas as a partner for any dialogue or cooperation. Though the administration presented an unwavering position, it is clear that tough words from the president and secretary of state will not be sufficient where maintaining a clear policy for the region is concerned. First, there is the issue of financial aid. The US was quick to threaten a halting of the cash flow to the PA - and with a great amount of enthusiasm from Capitol Hill, the administration seems to be on its way to cutting or significantly conditioning aid to the Palestinians. But it is not that simple. Though the US is entitled to cut part or all of its aid to the PA, it risks the creation of a humanitarian crisis among the Palestinians. The wiggle-room on this issue is actually limited. While it is easy to gain world support for declarations against giving money to terror groups, it will be more difficult to explain ceasing funds for health and education of refugees through UNRWA, for example, or ruining what is left of the Palestinian workforce. Nor is it clear how effective the dollar "stick" would be. If the US does decide to cut its aid, it might find Iran, Saudi Arabia or other Arab counties lining up to fill the financial gap. And though it has been claiming for a long time that the Arab countries do not give enough to their Palestinian brethren, the administration would not be keen to lose one of its few points of leverage over the PA. SECOND, THERE is the question of demands made on Hamas. US diplomacy was able to achieve remarkable consensus on the need for Hamas to recognize Israel and reject terror. The American conditions were echoed by the EU, Egypt and even by the Arab League and by Fatah. But history shows that this kind of consensus tends to erode quickly. Though, at the moment, all parties agree with the US that Hamas has to recognize Israel's right to exist, it is not clear what will happen when discussions really begin. It is possible, for example, that the US will continue to demand a formal amendment of the Hamas charter, while the Arab and European countries will be satisfied with an oral declaration of intent. It is also already evident that on the issue of terror, the US and its partners are not on the same page. As America stresses the need for dismantling the terror arm of Hamas, other partners are mentioning only "renouncing" terror. The third point of potential tension is Congress. US legislators, eager to make their mark on the issue of ties with Hamas, are pushing several resolutions aimed at blocking the US from giving money to or from negotiating with Hamas. So far, the administration is not trying to stop this activity. But the time will come when it steps in - as it has in the past - and demand that Congress not restrict its ability to conduct Middle East diplomacy. Finally, there is the legal issue. American law prohibits any contact with organizations designated as terror groups. The Hamas is such an organization. So who are the Americans allowed to talk to? Can US aid workers discuss a water project in Gaza with a Palestinian official working for a ministry run by an elected Hamas member? Can American businessmen be in touch with Palestinians who received their salaries from the PA? At the moment, this is all quite vague, and drawing lines in the future will be complicated. Edward Abington, a former American diplomat who now does lobbying work in Washington for the PA, said this week that he himself is not sure what is permitted by law. "If you've got a PA run by Hamas, I don't think we can work for them," Abington said, immediately adding, "not that I would want to work for them."