State Dept. Sidesteps Opportunity to Criticize Palestinian Unity Deal: ‘An Internal Matter’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 7, 2012 | 4:34am EST

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Authority chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas appear with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, during the signing of a unity government agreement in Doha, Qatar on Monday Feb. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

( – The Obama administration stopped short Monday of condemning a deal that brings the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas into a “unity” government, in stark contrast to Israel’s prompt denunciation of the move.

“As we've said many times, questions of Palestinian reconciliation are an internal matter for Palestinians,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, after Palestinian Authority (P.A.) chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas signed the pact with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Qatar.

The rival factions agreed that Abbas would serve as interim premier pending presidential and parliamentary elections in both the Fatah-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately rejected the deal, saying Abbas would have to choose between negotiating a peace deal with Israel or reconciling with “an Iranian-backed terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction.”

He noted that Hamas has not met the minimal criteria established by the Mideast “Quartet” – the U.S., Russia, European Union and the U.N. – for participation in the political process. The Quartet stipulates that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to all previously signed Israel-Palestinian agreements.

In her response, Nuland also pointed to the Quartet expectations, saying they “remain the same.”

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence. It must recognize the state of Israel and it must accept the previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the road map,” she said.

Nonetheless, Nuland did not criticize the Abbas-Meshaal agreement.

“We are not going to give a grade to this thing until we have a chance to talk to Palestinian Authority leaders about the implications,” she said.

Nuland declined to comment on Netanyahu’s reaction to the deal, but did say that Israel and the P.A. “ought to stay committed to this [negotiation] process.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the deal with Hamas “illustrates that extremist policies are entrenched within the Palestinian Authority.”

“The administration must stop pretending the P.A. is something it is not,” she said Monday. “The Palestinian leaders in Ramallah are not partners for peace and security, as this latest union with Hamas clearly demonstrates. It’s time for the administration to hold the P.A. accountable for its actions.”

What role, if any, current P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will play in the “unity” government remains unclear. Hamas’ rejection of the Western-backed economist stymied previous reconciliation attempts.

Fayyad in a statement Monday welcomed the agreement as a “national necessity,” but made no reference to his own position.

‘Talk to Hamas’

Hamas, established in 1987 as a Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been designated by the U.S. government as a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997.

The group’s founding charter, laden with Qur’anic references, calls for Jews to be killed and says all Muslims are duty-bound to join a jihad to destroy Israel.

The Israeli government holds Hamas responsible for thousands of deadly terror attacks since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, ranging from suicide bombings in Israeli cities to the launching of rockets targeting southern Israeli towns from Gaza. It has also been responsible for the deaths of American citizens, including victims in bombings in Jerusalem in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003.

In an interview last July with the mouthpiece of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Sabeel, Meshaal acknowledged that Hamas pays a political price for refusing to comply with the Quartet criteria but said it was one it was prepared to bear.

He predicted that Western countries and the international community would eventually have to “cooperate” with Hamas.

Hamas’ international ties have expanded significantly in recent years. Apart from its longstanding support from Iran and Syria, it also counts the governments of Turkey and Russia among its backers, and the political transition in Egypt has boosted its influence there.

Some voices have long been pressing for the U.S. government to talk to Hamas. They include former President Carter, who met with Meshaal in Damascus twice in 2008 despite being advised by the State Department beforehand not to do so.

After interviewing Meshaal immediately after Obama’s Cairo speech directed at the Islamic world in June 2009, Time magazine’s Joe Klein wrote that the U.S. should start talking to Hamas, arguing that “there will be no peace without Hamas as part of the process, as odious as its continuing embrace of violence against innocents may be. And there will be no process if the U.S. doesn't speak to all sides.”

In recent months the U.S. government has begun to reach out to the group that spawned Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a shift reflecting the veteran Islamist group’s political rise since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Prior to mid-2011, U.S. policy restricted contacts with the MB to the group’s lawmakers, elected as “independents” since the organization was outlawed.

Although the MB – unlike its Hamas offshoot – was never designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, its links to top terrorists include 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who joined the organization in Kuwait; al-Qaeda number two Ayman Zawahiri, a former top MB member in Egypt; and the jailed World Trade Center bombing plotter Omar Abdel Rahman, also an Egyptian.

Formed in Egypt in the 1920s, the MB now has branches and followers in dozens of countries. It promotes the establishment of a caliphate – a supranational society living under Islamic law (shari’a).

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