The Palestinian Authority appears to have crafted the parameters of its new Hamas-backed government to ensure that it met American legal requirements to allow it to continue to receive U.S. foreign aid, a U.S. member of Congress said.
“It appears that the [Palestinian Authority] looked for, and found, loopholes in our laws that prohibit funding to a unity Palestinian government that includes the terrorist group, Hamas,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told TheBlaze in an email.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month swore in the interim government, made up of apolitical figures described as “technocrats” who were approved both by Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas — a group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
Within hours of the induction of the new government, the State Department announced that the U.S. government would recognize and continue to fund the Palestinian Authority under its new leadership, but that at the same time it would be “watching closely to ensure that it upholds” certain principles, including recognizing the state of Israel, renouncing violence and honoring past agreements with Israel.
Palestinian unity government members, including President Mahmoud Abbas, center left, and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, center right, pose for a photo during its swearing-in ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
“This whole situation – the administration’s failed attempts at peace that resulted in this unity PA government – is a failure of American leadership. But worst of all, it appears that now the American taxpayers are on the hook for nearly half a billion dollars in aid to terrorists who openly call for the destruction of our friend and ally, the democratic, Jewish state of Israel," said Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
A Washington Post report last week said the Obama administration had helped the Palestinian Authority design the outlines of the government allowing it “to skirt, barely, U.S. prohibitions on aid to a Palestinian government that has ‘undue’ Hamas presence or influence.”
According to the Post report, the administration “worked behind the scenes to suggest terms for the new coalition government that would not trigger the U.S. ban, reasoning that the money helps preserve American leverage."
“We have closely scrutinized the new government ministers and the process by which President Abbas selected the government," a U.S. State Department official told TheBlaze.
The official declined to provide details on diplomatic discussions but said: "Based on our analysis to date, President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include any ministers affiliated with Hamas and in which Hamas plays no role."
"In fact, most of the key cabinet positions – including the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, and the finance minister – are the same as in the prior government,” the official said. “They are all technocrats unaffiliated with any political party and are tasked primarily for facilitating new elections. Thus, based on the fact that Hamas is not in the government and based on assurances from President Abbas that the government affirms the Quartet principles, we are willing to work with this government at this time.”
The official said the U.S. will monitor and judge the new government by its actions and policies.
Despite Israel’s expressions of disappointment in the U.S. stance, Israel itself continues to pay out tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have criticized the Obama administration’s speedy recognition of the new government and suggested the Hamas involvement in its creation should automatically have triggered a cutoff in the annual $440 million in direct U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Eighty-eight U.S. senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Thursday expressing “grave concern” about the unity government, warning that they would reconsider future aid to the Palestinians now that Hamas had a hand in determining the makeup of the government.
"Any assistance should only be provided when we have confidence that this new government is in full compliance with the restrictions contained in current law," the letter said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on Monday called the new government a "two-headed dragon" that violates U.S. aid requirements.
"U.S. law is explicit on this," Menendez told a meeting of the American Jewish Committee. "We will not provide assistance to a Palestinian government in which Hamas has a role and exercises 'undue influence.'"
Beyond the Washington Post report, a number of other developments in recent weeks suggested some level of U.S.-Palestinian consultation over the makeup of the new government which allowed it to fit, even if tightly, within the boundaries of the law — for example, the quick announcement from the State Department that the U.S. would recognize the new government and continue to fund the Palestinian Authority.
The unity government was sworn in at about 6:00 a.m. Eastern time on June 2. Just hours later, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, “We intend to work with this government.” She also indicated that Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier that day to alert him to the upcoming announcement on recognition, to which one of the reporters at the briefing quipped, “I’m surprised we didn’t hear the yelling from Jerusalem here in Washington.”
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department told TheBlaze, “You didn’t see the administration scrambling to determine whether it met legality [for continuing U.S. aid] or not."
"The assumption going in was that it met threshold. Based on that, one has to assume there was a certain amount of forethought that went into the decision," Schanzer said. He called the new government’s parameters a “picture-perfect interpretation” of U.S. law to allow the Palestinian Authority to continue receiving American foreign aid.
“All of this was done a little too neatly," Schanzer said.
Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy also suggested some level of coordination, telling TheBlaze, “My understanding basically is that Abbas came to U.S. officials and said 'I want to do my best not to take actions which would violate your laws so the Palestinian Authority can maintain its funding.' My understanding is we worked with him toward that end.”
Though he acknowledged he had no direct knowledge of U.S. officials “talking in Abbas’ right ear as he was talking to Hamas in negotiating the [unity government] agreement,” Satloff said the U.S. did work with the Palestinian Authority to check “the bona fides of potential ministers in the unity government, the technocratic government, to see whether any of them through their backgrounds and affiliations and past activities might raise red flags about the undue influence of Hamas.”
“My own view is that, by definition, this current government is the product of a Fatah-Hamas agreement and therefore it runs afoul of U.S. legislation. ... The identities of individual ministers are much less important than the fundamental reality that this is a government that’s a product of an agreement between Hamas and Fatah,” Satloff said.
Republican members of Congress have for years been railing against the Palestinian Authority’s granting of monthly salaries and other lucrative perks to convicted terrorists who have served time in Israeli prisons, a policy viewed widely among Israel supporters as rewarding terrorism. In an apparent move designed to placate the criticism – and GOP threats to cut off U.S. aid – the Palestinian Authority under the new unity government canceled its controversial Ministry of Prisoner Affairs, which had spearheaded the rewards-for-terrorists program.
The Palestine Liberation Organization – which is not funded by the U.S. - is now overseeing the monthly disbursements to Palestinian prisoners, a move the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoners’ affairs last week said was designed to “eliminate international pressure” from the prisoner issue that is considered “holy” to Palestinians.
Another development that reflects the Palestinian Authority’s effort to ensure the flow of U.S. aid is that the Palestinian Legislative Council, the 132-seat parliament comprised of a Hamas majority and a Hamas speaker, did not officially vote to approve the government, creating — at least publicly — more distance between Hamas and the unity government.
“This is a John Grisham ending. It was a technically correct interpretation of the law and Abbas gets to keep the money at the end,” Schanzer said. “It’s unlikely this was done without some [U.S.] assistance.”
“This all came together very nicely for Abbas and for the Palestinian Authority and for Hamas ... It raises a lot of questions as to how and if this was coordinated,” said Schanzer, who recently authored a book detailing Palestinian Authority corruption titled, "State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State."
Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee now say they want Kerry to explain his finding that the new unity government does not violate U.S. law.
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the committee, and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the top Democrat, sent a letter to Kerry on Monday saying that "any decision to work with this unity government could be extraordinarily counterproductive in our efforts both to promote peace and to help support the security of our ally Israel," the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service reported.
Schanzer warned that the administration’s embracing of the Hamas-backed government, even if it believes the unity government meets the letter of U.S. law, is rife with risk.
“The White House is effectively allowing Hamas to function within the Palestinian Authority government outside the reach of a central authority. It allows Hamas to continue to exist in the Hezbollah model -- a terrorist organization that operates outside the central authority,” he said.
The Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon functions as both a political party represented in the parliament and as an independent and powerful armed militia in southern Lebanon targeting Israel and now on the front lines of the Syrian civil war in alliance with President Bashar Assad.
Now that the unity deal has been sealed, Hamas this week expressed a desire to expand its operations beyond Gaza, calling on its militants to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians in the West Bank.
On Wednesday, rockets from Gaza were launched into southern Israel for a second time since the unity government was announced. It was not immediately clear whether Hamas or another terrorist group was responsible.
If it turns out Hamas was behind the firing, how does the U.S. respond? Does it punish the Palestinian Authority unity government since it is now backed by Hamas? Does Israel strike Palestinian Authority facilities in the West Bank in retaliation?
“It would appear that the U.S. has not thought this through. Or perhaps it has,” Schanzer said.
TheBlaze’s senior Washington correspondent Sara Carter contributed to this report.