While most of the Arab world has zigged, the Palestinian establishment has zagged. As “Arab streets” rise up and many of their governments are teetering or have fallen, the two rival Palestinian factions - the terrorist organization Hamas and the “moderate” Fatah party - are attempting a unity government that would ensure continued power for the society’s favored few.
Fatah’s leader, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, may have started a unity process to stave off possible grass-roots uprisings, or perhaps he wanted to unite all of Palestinian society in advance of a possible United Nations resolution in September that would unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood. Regardless, he apparently was not terribly concerned about the U.S. reaction.
Given how long it has taken President Obama to act decisively in more pressing situations in Egypt and Libya, no one is expecting the White House to act quickly to derail the internal Palestinian pact.
But that won’t stop Congress from swinging into action.
Even with Congress in recess last week, top Democratic Reps. Nita M. Lowey and Gary L. Ackerman, both from New York, wasted no time in condemning any partnership with Hamas and vowing congressional action.
The least of the PA’s concerns would be losing direct funding, which is only a fraction of overall U.S. support.
Although current law allows the president a national security waiver to release funds to a Hamas-partnered government, Mr. Obama would face a rebellion within his own party from hawkish members and most of the Jewish members, many of whom hold very senior positions. It is difficult to conceive of Mr. Obama picking a high-profile fight with his own party heading into a re-election effort in which he can’t afford to squander votes.
One of the first casualties beyond direct funding would seem to be the U.S. training of Palestinian security forces, led by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. Those forces are being trained, in essence, to fight Hamas - a goal that would be rendered moot.
The biggest chunk of “indirect” aid to the Palestinians comes through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been helping the Palestinians build physical and civilian infrastructure. USAID has been much more active in the West Bank than in Gaza since Hamas rose to power, mostly to strengthen the “moderate” Fatah party relative to Hamas and to help prepare for statehood.
With Hamas possibly linking arms with Fatah, that rationale no longer holds. At the very least, Congress is likely to tighten restrictions on USAID even further to prevent any strengthening of Hamas or its affiliates.
“It’s important for the Palestinians to understand that the entirety of their U.S. foreign aid is at risk,” warns Rep. Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey Democrat, who sits on the foreign aid spending panel and is responsible for drafting many of the restrictions designed to prevent funding of entities affiliated with Hamas or other terrorist groups. “But first we need to step back and take a look at what this unity government means and how long it lasts.”
Whether or not a unity government actually happens - one proposed in 2009 fell apart and the “successful” unity in 2007 ended four months later in a bloody Hamas coup in Gaza - Congress is certain to put all Palestinian funding under a microscope.
Because this has happened before, there already are structures in place to deal with a Hamas-partnered government. The reaction this time around, however, likely will be much harsher than in 2007, noted a Republican Hill staffer, “because that followed an election that we supported and Hamas won.” This time around, no such justification exists.
Congress also could look closer to home to apply pressure. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, which opened in 1994, enjoyed an upgrade in status last summer - essentially a step toward formal diplomatic relations - a major political victory.
Now it could be closed.
After all, the United States would not allow Hamas to open a diplomatic mission here. And not only would Hamas be partnering in the new unity government with Fatah, the dominant force in the PLO, but reports indicate that the terrorist group would officially become part of the PLO.
Also on the table would be limiting the movements of the New York-based Palestinian mission to the United Nations, subjecting its officials to restrictions applied to delegations from other state sponsors of terror, such as Iran.
Should the unity government fail to materialize or dissolve quickly after formation, there could be lingering political damage for Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party. Republicans likely will be less willing to spare Palestinian assistance from proposed spending cuts, so even USAID funding could take a substantial hit, with or without a unity government.
Worse for Mr. Abbas, Fatah’s identity as “moderate” will no doubt suffer among those who have been supportive. A Democratic Hill staffer who expressed surprise at the possibility of a unity government asked a question many others are probably asking: “We’re always focusing on Hamas, but if Fatah keeps rejoining Hamas in ‘unity,’ how different is Fatah from the group we all recognize are terrorists?”
Joel Mowbray is an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.