WASHINGTON — For allies who speak often of their unbreakable bonds and constant communication, this has been a season of static between Jerusalem and Washington. The latest eruption was over the announcement this week that the United States would work with a new Palestinian government that emerged from reconciliation talks with Hamas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials have condemned the Obama administration in unusually vitriolic terms for rushing to embrace a government that includes a militant Islamic group that the West has labeled a terrorist organization. The Americans, some Israelis said bitterly, had misled them about their intentions.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the decision, saying the new government did not have any Hamas members in cabinet positions and had pledged to abide by peaceful principles, including the recognition of the state of Israel. The Israeli government, he noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.
The back-and-forth shows how deeply strained relations between Israel and the United States have become since the collapse of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which American officials blamed Israel for and which the Israelis heatedly denied.
But this argument may only be a prelude to a much larger confrontation over Hamas. This week, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, called for elections in the West Bank and Gaza within six months. With Hamas expected to field candidates, the White House will have to decide whether to oppose its participation, and then, whether to deal with a government in which Hamas could play a bigger role.
“Can a group that has a political party and a militia of 20,000 troops run in an election?” a senior administration official said. “These are issues that are going to have be dealt with down the road.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol, said the administration had not made any decisions. But Israel has made clear that it will fight the inclusion of any Hamas candidates in the race and will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes the group.
History does not offer the Obama administration a comforting precedent. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration went along with Hamas’s participation in Palestinian legislative elections, partly because Mr. Abbas made a strong case for it to the White House and partly because nobody thought the group stood any chance of winning.
When Hamas swept to a historic victory over Mr. Abbas’s Fatah Party, it plunged the peace process into turmoil, prompted the Israelis and the West to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, and led critics to question whether Mr. Bush’s aggressive promotion of democracy was coming at the cost of America’s strategic interests.
“We made a mistake in allowing Hamas participation in 2006, and I hope we will not make that mistake twice,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser and was heavily involved in Middle East policy during that period.
Mr. Abrams said he sympathized with the administration’s desire not to cut off all ties with the new Palestinian government. That could precipitate a financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority, which would be dangerous for Israel’s security. He said the United States should continue security assistance and aid programs in the West Bank, while holding back $200 million in cash transfers to the new government.
But if the United States did not oppose the participation of Hamas in the election, Mr. Abrams said, “then we’re looking at a potentially major disagreement.” In fact, he said, one of the reasons the Israelis were reacting so strongly now “is to stake out their position later.”
Like other recent disputes between Israel and the United States, the one this week is shrouded in conflicting interpretations of what officials told each other in private conversations. Israeli officials insist that senior American officials assured them that the United States would take a wait-and-see attitude with the new Palestinian government.
“Instead of taking a standoff approach, they, in effect, became the first government in the world to recognize the Palestinian government,” said an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “They essentially became the first domino.”
American officials, however, said they were clear with the Israelis that they would work with the government if it met two conditions: not naming any Hamas members to cabinet posts and signing on to the so-called Quartet principles, named for the diplomatic body that mediates negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We’re not naïve,” the senior administration official said. “We understand that this could be Hamas’s nose under the tent, that it could lead Hamas to get a foothold in the West Bank, that terrorist cells could spring up in the West Bank again under a looser regime. So we’re watching all of that very carefully to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
But the alternative, the official said, would be the potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority — which Israel fears as much, if not more, than the United States. “There’s common interest we have in trying to find a way to walk between the raindrops here,” he said.
The administration is also dealing with crosscurrents from Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers, including the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, have called for the United States to suspend aid to the Palestinians. For now, the pressure from Congress is modest, officials said, but it could always intensify.
Speaking of the Palestinian government in Beirut, Lebanon, Mr. Kerry said, “I want to make it very clear we are going to be watching it very closely, as we have said from Day 1, to absolutely ensure that it upholds each of those things it has talked about, that it doesn’t cross the line.”
Nothing illustrated the complexity of the situation for the United States better than Mr. Kerry’s backdrop: He was in Lebanon to underscore American support for the Lebanese government — which includes the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service — if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
(via NY Times)