(CNSNews.com) – The often prickly relationship between the Obama administration and Israeli government looked set to take a sharp downward turn Monday after the State Department confirmed that the U.S. will work with and fund a newly-created Palestinian “unity” government backed by the terrorist group Hamas.
Senior officials cited in Israeli media said the government was “deeply disappointed” in the U.S. decision.
“If the U.S. administration wants to advance peace, it should be calling on [Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud] Abbas to end his pact with Hamas and return to peace talks with Israel,” it said.
“Instead, it is enabling Abbas to believe that it is acceptable to form a government with a terrorist organization.”
The reaction came after State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing that the “interim technocratic government” sworn in by Abbas hours earlier does not include Hamas-affiliated ministers.
“Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government,” she said, adding later that “we will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government, and if needed, we’ll calibrate our approach.”
Psaki confirmed there were no plans to cut funding to the P.A.
As the formation of the new government loomed, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday appealed to “responsible elements within the international community not to hurry to recognize” it.
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.
Those conditions are known as the “Quartet principles,” as they are the criteria established by the so-called Mideast Quartet – the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia – for Hamas to be an acceptable partner in any peace negotiations.
Although Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) since 1997, has consistently refused to meet the three key conditions – a stance it continues to hold to this day – Psaki pointed out that Abbas in announcing the formation of the unity government “reaffirmed support for the Quartet principles.”
Just a month ago the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Near East, Anne Patterson, assured lawmakers that unless Hamas – not Abbas or any other P.A. official – declares support for the Quartet principles, no U.S. funds will go to any government that includes Hamas.
“Let me be utterly clear about our policy towards Hamas: No U.S. governmental money will go into any government that includes Hamas until Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions,” Patterson told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on April 29.
‘… or that results from an agreement with Hamas …”
Restrictions placed by Congress in appropriations legislation prohibit funding for “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.”
Abbas is attempting to get around those hurdles by not having Hamas officials directly involved in the cabinet – even though the government was spawned by a unity agreement between his Fatah organization and Hamas. (The two rivals have been at odds since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007.)
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee that heard Patterson’s earlier assurances, was unimpressed by what she described as a Palestinian “contortionist act.”
“Whether it’s a government comprised of Hamas technocrats or an interim government that includes more active members of Hamas, the administration must not fall for this latest scheme by Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Hamas,” she said.
“The Palestinian leaders know that a unity government would trigger U.S. law to cut off funding, so now they are trying to find loopholes in order to say that they are still abiding by the conditions our laws mandate,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
She urged the administration not to fall for Abbas’ “latest ploy and instead enforce U.S. law and cut off funding.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called on the administration to suspend funding while it – in consultation with Congress – reviews the unity government to determine whether supporting it “is consistent with our own interests, principles, and laws.”
“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,” he said.
Republican Senators Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) also called on the administration to “enforce the law” and suspend funding, arguing in a joint statement that “U.S. credibility as well as Israel’s security are at stake.”
Not only has Hamas not endorsed the Quartet principles, it has pledged to continue what it calls its “armed struggle” – or what the State Department in its most recent annual terrorism report summarized as “attacks – such as suicide bombings, rocket launches, improvised explosive device attacks, and shootings – against civilian targets inside Israel.”
The Hamas news website, Al-Resalah cited Hamas’ foreign relations head Osama Hamdan as saying Sunday that pressure on the group “to dissuade it from upholding the national constants would never succeed in ending its armed struggle for liberation or changing its positions towards the national cause.”
At Monday’s department briefing, Psaki was asked whether the U.S. would hold the P.A. responsible for any future rocket or terror attacks from Gaza.
“We expect the Palestinian Authority to do everything in its power to prevent attacks from Gaza into Israel,” she said. “But we recognize that Hamas currently controls Gaza, and we’ll be closely monitoring the security situation moving forward.”
Hamas is not required to dismantle its military wing under the unity deal. A reporter pointed this out and asked Psaki whether the administration was “concerned that this is going to create a situation in Gaza similar to the Hezbollah entity in Lebanon.”
(In violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Hezbollah be disarmed and disbanded, the Iranian-backed, U.S.-designated FTO continues to operate in Lebanon, both as an armed entity and a political party with members in the cabinet.)
“Well, I think, again, we’ll continue to evaluate the specifics here,” Psaki replied. “But President Abbas has consistently upheld his responsibility to maintain security coordination, and he’s publicly stressed his commitment to doing that. We expect him to continue to uphold that commitment. Beyond that, I don’t have anything else to read out for you today.”