When Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas chose to scuttle peace talks with Israel this spring by deciding to conclude a pact with Hamas rather than the Jewish state, he was taking a calculated risk. In embracing his Islamist rivals, Abbas sought to unify the two leading Palestinian factions not to make peace more possible but to make it impossible. Since Palestinian public opinion–indeed the entire political culture of his people–regards any pact that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state as a betrayal of their national identity, bringing Hamas back into the PA fold illustrated that he would not take the sort of risks that peacemaking required.
But given the PA’s almost complete dependency on the United States and Europe for the aid that keeps its corrupt apparatus operating, there was a genuine risk that the unity pact would generate a cutoff of assistance that could topple his kleptocracy. U.S. law mandated such a rupture of relations, as did the officially stated policy of the Obama administration that rightly regards Hamas as a terrorist group, not a legitimate political player. But there was a chance that Washington would accept a Palestinian deception in which technocrats would be appointed to rule in the name of the Fatah-Hamas coalition in order to pretend that the terrorists were not in charge.
In the weeks since the unity pact was concluded it wasn’t clear which way the U.S. would jump on the question of keeping the money flowing to Abbas, though at times Secretary of State John Kerry made appropriate noises at the PA leader about the danger of going into business with Hamas. But today’s press briefing at the State Department removed any doubt about President Obama’s intentions. When asked to react to today’s announcement of a new Fatah-Hamas government in Ramallah, spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. would accept the Palestinian trick. As the Times of Israel reports:
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington believes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has “formed an interim technocratic government…that does not include members affiliated with Hamas.”
“With what we know now, we will work with this government,” Psaki said. She did, however, warn that the US “will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government and if needed we’ll modify our approach.” She later added that the administration would be “watching carefully to make sure” that the unity government upholds the principles that serve as preconditions for continuing US aid to the Palestinian Authority.
In recognizing the fig leaf of a “technocratic” government that is meant to distract the world from the reality that Hamas is now in full partnership with Abbas, the Obama administration may think it has put Israel’s government—which publicly called for the world not to recognize the Palestinian coalition—into a corner. But by discarding its own principles about recognizing unrepentant terror groups, Obama has done more than betrayed Israel. He has betrayed the cause of peace.
It would be a mistake to waste much time debating whether the cabinet Abbas has presented to the world is not really affiliated with Hamas. The people he has appointed are nothing but stand-ins for the real power brokers in Palestinian politics—the leaders of Fatah who lord it over those portions of the West Bank under the sway of the PA and the Hamas chieftains who have ruled Gaza with an iron fist since the 2007 coup in which they seized power there. Just like Abbas’s previous attempt to swindle the West into thinking that the PA intended to embrace reform during Salam Fayyad’s ill-fated term as prime minister, the “technocratic” cabinet isn’t fooling anyone. Americans and Israelis may have lauded Fayyadism as a path to a responsible Palestinian government that would eschew corruption and try to actually improve the lives of its people. But Fayyad was a man without a political constituency and, despite the support he had in Washington, was thrown overboard by Abbas and the PA went back to business as usual without a backward glance.
Nor is there any use arguing about whether it is Hamas that has been co-opted by Abbas and Fatah rather than the other way around. The two rival parties have very different visions of Palestinian society with Hamas hoping to eventually install the same kind of theocratic rule in the West Bank that it established in the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza. But at the moment there is no fundamental difference between the two on dealing with Israel. Despite its unwillingness to recognize Israel even in principle and its refusal to back away from its charter that calls for the Jewish state’s destruction and the slaughter of its people, Hamas doesn’t want an open war with Israel anymore than Fatah. But by the same token, Fatah has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 15 years that it is as incapable of making peace with Israel, even on terms that would have gained it sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, as Hamas. The two parties are genuinely unified in their desire to keep chipping away at Israel’s international legitimacy and to avoid peace at any cost.
Admitting this would be a bitter pill for an Obama administration that has invested heavily in Abbas, a man they have wrongly portrayed as a peacemaker even as they have vilified Netanyahu as an obstacle to a deal. So rather than honestly assessing their policy and owning up to the fact that five and a half years of attempts to appease Abbas and tilt the diplomatic playing field in his direction have done nothing to make him say yes to peace, the administration will go along with the PA’s deception.
That’s a blow to Israel, which now finds itself more isolated than ever. But the real betrayal doesn’t involve Obama’s broken promises to the Jewish state or to pro-Israel voters. By buying into the myth that Hamas isn’t involved with the new PA government, the president is putting a spike into the last remote chances for a peace deal in the foreseeable future. So long as the Palestinians are allowed to believe that there is no price to be paid for rejecting peace, there will be no change in their attitudes. By allowing American taxpayer dollars to flow to a government controlled in part by Hamas, Obama is violating U.S. law. But he’s also signaling that the U.S. has no intention of ever pressuring the Palestinians to take the two-state solution they’ve been repeatedly offered by Israel and always rejected. For a president that is obsessed with his legacy, that’s a mistake for which history ought never to forgive him.