The U.S. said it will maintain financial aid to the Palestinian Authority even under a new government backed by the Islamic Hamas movement, earning a rebuke from Israel.
Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday to discuss continuing U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The Israeli government later issued a statement saying it is “deeply disappointed” by U.S. comments about working with the new government, formed after an agreement between Hamas, regarded by the U.S. and Israel as a terrorist group, and the rival Palestine Liberation Organization. American aid for the Palestinians is budgeted at $440 million this year.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas oversaw the swearing-in of 17 ministers yesterday in a ceremony in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas has said the new technocratic government, which doesn’t include any official Hamas members, will support conditions laid down by international mediators, which include honoring past agreements with Israel, renouncing violence and recognizing Israel.
“Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but will be watching closely to make sure it upholds the principles that President Abbas reiterated today,” Psaki said.
Congress bars U.S. aid to any Palestinian government “effectively controlled” by Hamas, as well as to any power-sharing arrangement that includes Hamas members or that results from an agreement through which Hamas “exercises undue influence.” The U.S. president has authority to waive that provision if deemed to be the national interest.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor yesterday called for the suspension of U.S. aid so the Obama administration and Congress can determine whether “this so-called technocratic government” is free of influence of Hamas.
“President Abbas argues that the new government is composed of ministers without political affiliation, but this new government appears dependent upon Hamas and Hamas continues to support terrorism in its quest to destroy the state of Israel,” Cantor said in a statement. The “burden lies on this new unity government” to show it rejects terrorism, is “truly independent of Hamas,” and recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, said Cantor, a Virginia Republican.
Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a separate statement that as long as Hamas rejects “the existence of Israel, United States funding for this unity government is in jeopardy.”
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Abbas appears to have “threaded the needle on this” by structuring the unity government in a way that doesn’t cross the U.S. line.
The majority of the new cabinet are holdovers, and the Hamas-endorsed newcomers aren’t “card-carrying members” of the group, he said.
“You can see the fingerprints of the administration, quite frankly,” he said in a briefing for reporters. “I’ve heard from several people in the region that they believe that the administration worked quietly behind the scenes to make sure that you didn’t see a cutoff.”
Israel has warned it will withhold at least some of the $1.2 billion it collects annually for the Palestinians in customs tariffs and other payments.
Netanyahu urged the international community to shun the new Palestinian government. Hamas militants have killed hundreds of Israelis and barraged Israel with thousands of rockets. Such a government “doesn’t bolster peace, it bolsters terror,” Netanyahu said yesterday in comments broadcast on Israel Radio.
The Israeli government statement made no effort to disguise a rift with the Obama administration.
“If the U.S. administration wants to advance peace, it should be calling on Abbas to end his pact with Hamas and return to peace talks with Israel,” it said.
Since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah loyalists in 2007, the 4.5 million Palestinians there and in the West Bank have been governed by rival authorities.
The deal to form a unity government and hold elections six months later was announced April 23, as peace talks between Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Israel verged on collapse. Israel officially broke off negotiations to protest the reconciliation.
“Today we declare an end to the split and regaining unity of the homeland,” Abbas said in remarks broadcast after the ceremony on Palestine TV. The unity government “starts working and performing today,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza.