U.S., Israel split over Hamas-backed Palestinian government

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 3, 2014 

Mideast Palestinians Reconciliation

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah attends his first meeting of the Palestinian unity government cabinet, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, June 3, 2014.


— The inauguration of a Palestinian unity government backed by the militant Islamist group Hamas has opened a public rift between Israel and the United States over policy toward the interim Cabinet sworn in Monday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The announcement by Washington that it would do business with the new government – a Cabinet of technocrats backed by Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas as part of a reconciliation deal _ has drawn sharp rebukes from Israeli officials.

Their remarks reflect mounting concern about growing international acceptance of the new Palestinian government, which received expressions of support Tuesday from the European Union and the United Nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in comments Tuesday to the Associated Press distributed by his office, said the U.S. announcement “deeply troubled” him, adding that Hamas had murdered “countless innocent civilians.”

“All those who genuinely seek peace must reject President Abbas’ embrace of Hamas, and most especially I think the United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian president that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable,” Netanyahu said.

In rare open criticism of the Obama administration by an Israeli envoy, Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Israel was “deeply disappointed” by a State Department announcement Monday that the United States intends to “work with” the unity government and maintain American aid to the Palestinian Authority because the new Cabinet doesn’t include members of Hamas.

Israel, the United States and the European Union consider the militant Islamist group _ which refuses to recognize Israel and has carried out suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli cities _ a terrorist organization.

“Had Hamas changed, it would be one thing,” Dermer wrote late Monday in a Facebook posting. “But Hamas hasn’t changed. It remains as committed to Israel’s destruction today as it was yesterday.”

“This Palestinian unity government is a government of technocrats backed by terrorists, and should be treated as such,” Dermer added. “With suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office, it should not be business as usual.”

On Tuesday, Dermer, who grew up in Miami Beach, told The Miami Herald that the United States is essentially one of the first countries to recognize the new Palestinian government. “What we were hoping for was a strong statement that would make clear that the United States opposes an alliance between Hamas and Fatah,” Dermer said.

The Israeli security Cabinet authorized Netanyahu on Monday to impose unspecified “additional sanctions” on the Palestinian Authority, and it reiterated Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry had phoned Netanyahu before her announcement to inform him of the American position.

“At this point, it appears that President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas,” Psaki said. “Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to ensure that it upholds principles that President Abbas reiterated today.”

After swearing in the new Cabinet, Abbas said it would follow his political program, meeting international conditions for diplomatic contact: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and commitment to previous agreements with the Israelis.

Psaki said the United States would continue supplying financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, “but we will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government and calibrate our approach accordingly.”

Under the provisions of a 2012 congressional appropriations bill, financial assistance to the Palestinians may not benefit Hamas “or any entity effectively controlled by Hamas, any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member or that results from an agreement with Hamas and over which Hamas exercises undue influence.”

Some members of Congress called on the Obama administration to suspend funding to the Palestinians – about $500 million annually – until the policies of the new unity government are clarified.

“Funding for the Palestinians is off the table until it is clear that the unity government is committed to peace and security,” said Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, a Republican who chairs a House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees foreign aid. “Hamas, not just members of the new government, must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and adhere to previous international agreements.”

Following the U.S. administration’s lead, local representatives of the United Nations and European Union expressed their backing for the new Palestinian government in the West Bank on Tuesday.

Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for Middle East peace, visited the Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, in Ramallah, West Bank, and “affirmed the U.N. support for the national consensus government,” a statement from Hamdallah’s office said.

The EU representative in the West Bank, John Gatt-Rutter, expressed similar support in a meeting between Hamdallah and European envoys, and the same message was conveyed in a phone call from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the prime minister’s office said.

Ayana Steward of The Miami Herald contributed from Miami.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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