Allies Press U.S., Israel To Talk With Hamas-Fatah Coalition

By Ori Nir

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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The American and Israeli governments will face growing international pressure to engage with a Palestinian unity government — even one dominated by the terrorist organization Hamas, foreign diplomats in Washington said this week.

The new government has yet to be formed, but Palestinian officials this week were publicly saying that Hamas, the ruling Islamic fundamentalist movement, and its secular nationalist rival, Fatah, would finalize a coalition agreement soon that would also include independent politicians. As part of the deal, the new Palestinian government is expected to ratify a platform that implicitly endorses a two-state solution.

America’s international partners in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts were welcoming the prospect of a unity coalition, but the Bush administration views the formation of such a government as a negative step. In conversations with foreign diplomats in Washington, administration officials said that the new Palestinian move is likely to increase the distance between the United States and the Palestinian Authority, rather than bring the two closer together. The United States would have less interaction with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if his Fatah party partners with Hamas in a government dominated by the terrorist group, and is likely to decrease American funding to his office, administration officials told foreign diplomats in Washington.

Officially and publicly, the Bush administration is reacting to the news about the imminent formation of such a government by saying that any Palestinian government would be judged by its ability to fulfill the three conditions set forth by the diplomatic quartet of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia: It must renounce terrorism and violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said Tuesday it was unlikely that a Palestinian unity government would fulfill these conditions. “From what we have seen so far we are certainly concerned” that the new government would not accept the demands, he told reporters. “Obviously, nothing can move forward until such time that there’s a government in place that does meet [these] criteria.”

Privately, in talks with Washington diplomats and Middle East experts, administration officials said this week that the creation of a Palestinian unity government is disappointing. The move, American diplomats reportedly said, brings the relatively moderate Abbas closer to the terrorist Hamas, rather than the other way around.

Abbas is letting his Fatah party join a government headed by Hamas without fulfilling any of the three conditions, Bush administration officials reportedly said. By doing so, he is demonstrating his weakness and making himself a less likely interlocutor for negotiations with Israel.

The E.U. sees the development differently. In a statement issued Monday, the E.U. welcomed the announcement of the creation of a unity government, calling it a “positive development” and expressing “hopes that it will create the conditions for a return to the process of negotiation between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.” The E.U did not indicate whether such a government would be more likely to receive European funding. The Council of European Foreign Ministers is scheduled to discuss the issue on September 15, E.U. sources said.

“Hamas is feeling a lot of public pressure because of the economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, and it is adjusting in a cosmetic fashion that enables Hamas — at a minimum — to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States, while avoiding any doctrinal changes,” said David Makovsky, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The administration’s disappointment is particularly acute because its chief Middle East policymakers feel as if they have been rebuffed by Abbas. In May, during a meeting with Abbas, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Welch, reportedly urged the Palestinian president to use his authority and dismiss Hamas’s government and appoint an alternative one, headed by moderates in its place. Abbas declined. Now, administration officials believe that he is going in the opposite direction, sources said.

The Israeli government, which reacted in a similar manner as the Bush administration to the prospect of a Fatah-Hamas unity government, is further coordinating its positions and actions on the implications of such a government with Washington.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is meeting with senior administration officials in Washington this week. Livni’s aides said that she would discuss with her American interlocutors ways to maintain the international front against Hamas. Later this month, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Livni is expected to urge world leaders not to interact with or provide financial support to a Hamas-led government as long as it has not fulfilled the international community’s three conditions, even if it includes moderates who advocate peace with Israel. Livni is asking American policymakers to back her up in these efforts.

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