(CNSNews.com) – Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday will formally sign a reconciliation pact with leaders of the Hamas terrorist group, but the Obama administration is waiting to see what the resulting unity government looks like before announcing its stance towards it.
The signing in Cairo comes two days after Hamas’ Gaza-based leader lauded Osama bin Laden as a martyr and great Islamic warrior, and a day after the armed wing of Abbas’ Fatah faction also expressed sorrow at the terrorist’s death at the hands of “non-believers,” adding that the it would not stop “our jihad mission against injustice and occupation.”
Earlier, P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the al-Qaeda leader’s death increased the chances for peace.
Hamas is insisting that Fayyad – who is not a member of Fatah or Hamas and whose leadership has won praise from the West – play no part in a unity government.
The jurisdiction of the Fatah-dominated P.A. has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The makeup of the envisaged hybrid government remains unclear. According to a draft inked in Cairo on Tuesday by representatives of more than a dozen Palestinian factions, it will serve as an interim body until long-overdue elections are held in the West Bank and Gaza, in May 2012.
Pressed by reporters Tuesday on the administration’s position on a Fatah-Hamas government, State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated long-standing U.S. policy that if Hamas wants a political role it must meet criteria established by the Mideast “Quartet.”
The Quartet – the U.S., Russia, European Union and U.N. – says Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to previous signed agreements.
Asked whether the administration would support a government that includes Hamas, given Hamas’ stance on those criteria today, Toner said it would assess its position based on the government’s composition.
“I’m saying that there might be a way, but until the new Palestinian government, if and when this is formed, we will assess our policy based on that composition of that government,” he said. “But until then, I’m not going to speculate.”
During a meeting with Quartet envoy Tony Blair Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged Abbas to “annul the agreement with Hamas immediately and choose the path of peace with Israel.”
“How is it possible to achieve peace with a government, half of which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and even praises the arch-murderer Osama bin Laden?” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying during the meeting.
Abbas may try to get around the international conditions applying to Hamas by insisting that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the entity responsible for negotiations.
The PLO, an overarching Palestinian body which Abbas also heads, is dominated by Fatah and does not include Hamas.
“The [unity] government’s role is limited to administrative affairs dealing with the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Fatah negotiator Azzam al-Ahmad told reporters on Monday. “But all political matters including negotiating the peace process will remain the responsibility of the PLO.”
Lawmakers eye US aid to P.A.
Under U.S. law enacted in 2006, assistance to the P.A. is conditioned on its compliance with obligations to renounce and combat violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by existing agreements.
The 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (PATA) was authored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), then ranking member and now chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“U.S. taxpayer funds should not and must not be used to support those who threaten U.S. security, our interests, and our vital ally, Israel,” Ros-Lehtinen said after news of the impending Fatah-Hamas deal broke last week.
“According to existing U.S. law, such a hybrid government cannot be a recipient of U.S. taxpayer funds because the law stipulates that the P.A. government must recognize the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist, among other things,” she said.
“Therefore, in order to implement existing law, the U.S. must end assistance to the Palestinian Authority.”
Other lawmakers adopting a similar stance on U.S. aid include Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee; and Tea Party freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who said that “[a]ny government in which Hamas – a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel – plays a role, should not receive one dollar from the United States.”
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with foreign aid, Reps. Kay Granger (Tex.) and Nita Lowey (N.Y.), wrote to Abbas last week, warning that a unity government with Hamas “threaten[s] the provision of United States’ assistance and support.”
In contrast, former President Carter has urged the international community to respond with “flexibility” to the Fatah-Hamas deal.
A statement released by his Carter Center welcomed the agreement, but made no direct reference to Hamas’ terrorism or the requirement that it recognize Israel.
“Based on my years of contacts with Fatah and Hamas, I am confident that, if handled creatively and flexibly by the international community, Hamas’ return to unified Palestinian governance can increase the likelihood of a two-state solution and a peaceful outcome,” Carter said.
“I encourage the international community to respect this decision by the Palestinian leadership and to view it as part of the larger democratic trend sweeping the region.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Fayyad on Tuesday, but Toner declined to say whether she raised the issue of legality of continuing U.S. aid to the P.A. should Hamas have a role in government.
“I don’t want to get into the details of their discussion, but we’ve been very clear that both U.S. assistance and other assistance to the Palestinian Authority has been important in helping them build the kind of democratic institutions that lead to an eventual statehood,” he said.
$3.5 billion in aid since the mid-1990s
According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report updated in January, since the Oslo accords launched P.A. self-rule in the mid-1990s, “the U.S. government has committed over $3.5 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid.”
The report provides figures for bilateral assistance to the P.A. in recent fiscal years – $230.4 million in 2005, $153.2 million in 2006, $69.5 million in 2007, $414.5 million in 2008, $980.7 million in 2009, and $502.9 million in 2010. Some $550 million was requested for FY 2011, and a similar amount for FY 2012.
The CRS report notes that legal conditions and restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians include a ban on aid “for Hamas or Hamas-controlled entities.”
Under PATA, it says, no aid is permitted for a power-sharing government that includes Hamas unless the president certifies that the government and all of its ministers accept “(1) recognition of ‘the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist’ and (2) acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.”
Under certain conditions, including consultation with appropriate congressional committees, the president may waive, for national security purposes, restrictions on aid for the P.A. president and judiciary, if they are not Hamas-controlled.
Other conditions are set in law on aid for an independent Palestinian state, while no aid may go to the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, which has long drawn criticism for programming inciting violence against Israel.