Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. aid to Palestinians

The Consequences of Appeasing Hamas

Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

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Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

As I noted earlier, despite the decision of Abbas to embrace Hamas rather than Israel, the U.S. has chosen to treat that choice as an acceptable one. The conceit behind this policy was the notion that Hamas was too broke to pose much of a threat to Abbas’s Fatah faction and that its incorporation into the PA would strengthen the man they continued to call a peace partner, despite his lack of interest in negotiating with Israel. Tension between the two factions continued to simmer and may now overflow as Israel pressures Abbas to cooperate in the search for the kidnapped Israeli kids. But this spring the U.S. position toward both the PA and Hamas had become one that amounted to one in which Washington was resolutely determined to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about the new Palestinian regime.

This faith in Abbas was partly the result of Obama’s unwillingness to look clearly at a man who has been determined to avoid signing a peace treaty at all costs since he succeeded Yasir Arafat in 2005. But it was also, at least in part, the function of the administration’s innate hostility to Abbas’s Israeli counterpart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president’s preference for the veteran terrorist associate now serving the 10th year of a five-year term of office over the man whose three election victories represent the will of Israeli democracy is no secret. But Obama’s antipathy for the prime minister has morphed in the past six years from a quirk to a clear liability for U.S. policymakers. It has blinded Washington to the reality of Palestinian politics, especially after Kerry’s initiative was torpedoed by Abbas’s end run around the U.S. talks by going back to the United Nations as well as by the pact with Hamas.

U.S. policymakers may chalk up the attempt to bolster Abbas even after his Hamas pact as just another well-intentioned effort that was doomed to failure by the intransigence of both sides in the conflict. But the decision to give a Hamas government Washington’s seal of approval may have more far-reaching consequences than the State Department realizes.

Though the kidnapping of the Israeli teens has a lot more to do with Hamas’s long-range plans to supplant Fatah in the West Bank than with U.S. policy, it did not escape their notice, nor that of anyone else, that in doing so the Americans had abandoned a core principle of peacemaking. If Hamas’s continued refusal to abandon its genocidal charter or to cease terrorism didn’t render any government it was part of ineligible for U.S. aid, is there anything the Palestinians can do that would motivate Washington to cut them off?

In this context, Kerry’s condemnation of the kidnapping means nothing more than Abbas’s belated decision to repudiate it. Unless the United States follows up this statement with a demand that Abbas throw Hamas out of his government, Palestinians may be forgiven for thinking that Kerry’s statement was a meaningless bow in the direction of Israel and its friends. The consequences of appeasing Hamas may be measured not only in the decision of the group to up the ante in the West Bank with a spectacular terror operation but in the end of any U.S. influence over the PA. Obama and Kerry may not have intended for their decision to treat Hamas as just another Palestinian political party to be a green light for more terrorism. But, like it or not, that’s exactly what has happened. The only question now is whether it is too late for the administration to walk this terrible error back.

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Obama’s Embrace of Hamas Betrays Peace

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.

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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.

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