(CNSNews.com) – An announcement Wednesday of a fresh attempt by rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government raises anew the prospect of a U.S. funding cutoff to the Palestinian Authority, and a Republican lawmaker was quick to signal her intention to get the ball rolling.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said she plans to convene a hearing soon to discuss the issue.
“U.S. law is clear on the prohibition of U.S. assistance to a unity Palestinian government that includes Hamas,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “President Obama must not allow one cent of American taxpayer money to help fund this terrorist group.”
She said further that it was “long past time the U.S. reassess its relationship with the corrupt Abu Mazen [P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas] and his cronies.”
U.S. law – the 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act – makes assistance to the P.A. conditional on its compliance with obligations to renounce and combat violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by existing agreements. Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO), has refused to meet those three key conditions.
Hours after the unity deal was announced after talks at a hotel in Gaza, Abbas, who also heads Fatah, said there was no contradiction between intra-Palestinian reconciliation and negotiation with Israel, “because we are committed to achieving a just and lasting peace based on the two-state solution and international resolutions.”
If by “we” he meant Fatah and Hamas, a senior Hamas official has already called that into question: Hassan Yousef was quoted as saying his group would neither recognize Israel nor end “resistance” – the Islamist group’s euphemism for its violent campaign.The deal announced in Gaza provides for an interim unity government to be established in five weeks’ time, and for long-overdue legislative elections to be held six months later. Previous such agreements, announced with much fanfare, have stalled.
As the talks were underway earlier Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Abbas could either make peace with Hamas or with Israel.
“You can have one but not the other,” he said in a joint appearance with the visiting Austrian foreign minister. “I hope he chooses peace; so far he hasn’t done so.”
Later, he said Abbas appeared to have made his choice: “Abu Mazen has chosen Hamas and not peace. Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace.”
Netanyahu also canceled a meeting of Israeli and P.A. negotiators scheduled for Wednesday night – the latest attempt to agree to extend talks beyond a fast-approaching April 29 deadline set by Secretary of State John Kerry nine months ago. Netanyahu also spoke to Kerry by phone about the matter.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed understanding for the Israeli decision.
“The secretary and we all understand it’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to sit down and negotiate with a group that denies its right to exist,” she told a daily press briefing, saying the administration was “disappointed” about the unity government announcement.
Psaki pointed again to the three key criteria (which are also the three conditions established by the so-called Mideast Quartet – the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia – for Hamas to be an acceptable partner in the negotiations process.)
“Historically Hamas has not shown a willingness to abide by the basic principles expected by the U.S. government,” she said.
Psaki said the administration had made its views clear to the P.A. privately on Wednesday. She said the focus now remains “talking to both parties, hour by hour, to see what process can happen moving forward.”
Ros-Lehtinen described Kerry’s push for an agreement between Israel and the P.A. “folly and hubris,” saying it was evident that Abbas “was never a true partner for peace.”
“This is yet another example of the Obama administration’s failed leadership and this rebuff of the U.S. by Abu Mazen is a direct result of the administration’s misplaced priorities and its longstanding pattern of acquiescing and conceding to the P.A. in its failed diplomacy efforts.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. taxpayers have accounted for approximately $5 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians since the Oslo accords established Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s.
Over those two decades the Palestinians have become among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid.
The key priorities outlined by successive administrations in requesting the funding are: preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other terror groups; fostering stability, prosperity and self-governance in the West Bank in support of the “two-state solution” goal; and meeting humanitarian needs.
Established in 1987 as a Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was designated an FTO a decade later. Its founding charter, which has not been renounced, calls for Jews to be killed and says all Muslims are duty-bound to join a jihad to destroy Israel.
In 2006, Hamas defeated Fatah faction in legislative elections and the following year seized control of the Gaza Strip amid bloody clashes with forces loyal to Abbas.
While Hamas remains in control of Gaza it has experienced a series of setbacks in recent years. Its longstanding sponsorship by Iran and Syria was shaken as a result of the Syrian civil war, when Hamas was caught between loyalty to the Assad regime and its affinity for the anti-Assad opposition, which includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
In another severe blow, Hamas lost its Muslim Brotherhood ally in Cairo when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohammed Morsi last July.
In past Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts, Abbas has tried to dodge the international conditions applying to Hamas by insisting that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the entity responsible for negotiations.
The PLO, the overarching Palestinian body which Abbas also heads, is dominated by Fatah and does not include Hamas.