WASHINGTON — As the White House intensifies its efforts to deny international aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, several of America’s European and Arab allies are warning that such an approach could boost Iranian influence in the territories and increase support for Hamas in the Arab world.
The fear in European and Arab capitals is that a cutoff in aid could push the Palestinians deeper into the bosom of Iranian-led militant Islamism and increase Arab and Muslim support for Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel. An additional concern, say foreign diplomats and American experts on the Middle East, is that cutting aid could create a situation in which Palestinians would blame the West for the failures of a Hamas-led Palestinian government instead of blaming the terrorist organization.
European diplomats in Washington have raised such concerns with the administration, the Forward has learned, and these concerns were raised during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to several Arab countries this week. But any effort to adjust American policy toward Hamas is likely to encounter resistance in Israel and with Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is making the isolation of Hamas its chief agenda item at its annual policy conference early next month.
Thousands of Aipac activists will gather on Capitol Hill on March 7 to lobby for the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which would ban all direct aid to the P.A. and severely limit indirect financial assistance. The bill, initiated in the House of Representatives by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and California Democrat Tom Lantos, poses strict conditions for the resumption of American aid.
Advocates of strong financial pressure on Hamas say that the militant Islamist organization will turn to Iran regardless of the West’s policy on assistance to the Palestinians.
“Hamas will turn to Iran anyway and receive significant aid” from Tehran, said Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, former military secretary to Israel’s minister of defense and currently a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The challenge, he said, was not how to prevent pushing Hamas into the arms of Iran, but how to pressure Hamas without causing a humanitarian catastrophe in the West Bank and Gaza.
Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Israeli Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, described Israel’s policy as putting the Palestinians on a diet. They “will feel as if they have been on a visit to a dietician,” said Weisglass, who helped draw up Israel’s economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. “They will become thinner, but they won’t starve to death.”
Foreign diplomats and American experts on the Middle East say that a more nuanced approach is needed.
“We should have a complex strategy, which bars certain kinds of money, allows other kinds of money and has enough just within reach that requires a policy change by the Palestinian government,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “By carefully constructing incentives and punishments, we can either change the nature of the organization or demonstrate more broadly that Hamas is implacably opposed to a negotiated solution.”
In addition to punitive measures, America should offer the new Palestinian government incentives for a possible evolution of Hamas into an appropriate partner for negotiations, Alterman said. He added that there ought to be “a series of baby carrots with the concerted idea that if you get them to take carrot after carrot, then somehow the nature of the organization at the end is not as it was in the beginning.”
Since Hamas won a majority of the legislative seats in last month’s parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, the movement’s leaders have said that they can do without Western aid. This week, the movement’s leader in exile, Khaled Mashal, met with Iran’s leaders in Tehran, where the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Muslim nations to fund the soon-to-be-formed Hamas-led government.
The P.A. needs at least $100 million per month in foreign funds to pay salaries to about 150,000 employees and trainees. Their salaries are believed to support about one-third of the Palestinian population. The Arab League is attempting to obtain commitments from member states to supply the P.A. with $50 million per month, increasing the current level of government support from Arab countries more than fivefold. Iran could end up matching these funds, but it has not announced any dollar-figure commitment. Some observers are predicting that Islamic organizations worldwide could turn the Hamas-led Palestinian territories into a cause for mobilizing supporters and rallying financial support.
“This set of consequences from the walls and barriers [that America is building vis-à-vis Hamas] is in many ways the worst-case scenario,” Alterman said. “It not only brings the Palestinian government closer to our foes in the Middle East, but also makes people throughout the Muslim world feel personally invested in even more immediate ways than they have been before, not only in the Palestinian cause but in the Hamas government. That’s not a win from our perspective.”
Rice indicated Tuesday, at a press conference in Cairo, that America would encourage the continuation of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. “People’s lives are in the balance,” the secretary of state said. Rice also expressed satisfaction over what she described as the international community’s unified position that to be considered a legitimate political player, Hamas must recognize the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO, renounce terrorism and accept Israel’s right to exist.
This week Rice took part in a conference call with members of the diplomatic front known as the Quartet. On the call were Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and European Union representatives. They agreed to hold regular weekly consultations to maintain a united front on relations with Hamas.
Already, however, cracks are emerging. Leaders in Russia, as well as in Turkey, have agreed to meet with the newly elected Hamas officials.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Rice on Tuesday that his country is not ready to cut off a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Prior to her tour of the Middle East, Rice had said that Hamas’ recognition of Israel could substantially accelerate the peace process. “Nothing would be better than to have Hamas make the right choice,” she said in a roundtable with Arab journalists last week.
“You will see more cracks in Europe later on, which will complicate things for the administration,” said Robert O. Friedman, professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University. “America’s policy will have to be a balancing act.”
On the flip side, the administration is facing pressure from Capitol Hill.
Under the bill being pushed by Ros-Lehtinen and Lantos, with the support of Jewish organizations, several strict conditions must be met before American aid kicks in: The P.A. would have to prove that it is not employing a single member of Hamas or any other group on American terrorism lists, dismantle all terrorist groups, halt all anti-Israel incitement in any sector it controls and replace it with materials promoting coexistence, and ensure democracy and financial transparency. The conditions refer both to direct aid and to the indirect aid that the United States supplies to the P.A. through nongovernmental organizations. The only exception is for humanitarian assistance. In addition, the bill reduces U.S. payments to the United Nations commensurate with the amount of the U.N. budget that goes to the P.A. It also tightens the president’s options for circumvention, omitting any national security waivers related to aid and requiring a 15-day waiting period before humanitarian assistance goes forward.
The administration has not yet indicated its position on the new legislation, but congressional staffers expect the White House to oppose the measure’s strict restrictions on presidential discretion in extending financial assistance.
The P.A. was slated to receive $150 million this year from America, all of it through non-governmental organizations. The Bush administration last week requested that the Palestinians return $50 million in American assistance that had been earmarked for infrastructure development and was expected to be under the control of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. But congressional sources said, despite the tough step, the administration wants to preserve its ability to supply indirect aid for development projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
In a February 17 meeting with representatives of Arab-American organizations and representatives of American organizations that provide assistance to Palestinians in the territories, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch and the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs, Michael Doran, said that America’s position on aid to the Palestinians was still being formulated. Welch reportedly promised that humanitarian aid to the Palestinians would not be impacted by any changes to this policy. He agreed to form a State Department working group that would include leaders from the Arab American community and aid organizations, to continue the dialogue on the issue.