The creation of a new Palestinian “national unity” government has raised a slew of questions in the United States. What should our policy be toward a government that has the support not only of the Fatah party but of the terrorist group Hamas as well? Should all aid to the Palestinians be suspended?
The new government, in the words of the New York Times, “led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, a linguist and former university president who has held the top post in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for the past year, is made up largely of lawyers, businessmen and academics who are not formally tied to either Fatah or Hamas.” The lack of such formal ties separates the current situation from the one the Bush administration faced in 2006, when Hamas won parliamentary elections. Hamas was then in power, with the ability to use its parliamentary majority to pass legislation and control the ministries. Today, the parliament does not meet, and power resides with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas and with the cabinet just formed. In 2006, U.S. government lawyers made it clear immediately that aid had to be cut off from any part of the Palestinian government that was controlled by parliament. Aid could flow to parts that reported to the president, who was independently elected, and it did: to the office of the president, the security forces the president controlled, and other independent parts of the Palestinian government such as elected mayors.
The situation today is not yet clear, but it appears that Hamas, as a party and terrorist group, will not control any parts of the Palestinian Authority in this new “technocratic” government. That should mean that aid projects—for example, work on sewage or water systems or schools or hospitals—can continue. If it appears that a particular minister actually takes orders from Hamas, that ministry should be cut off. Security assistance should be continued, for it benefits Israelis as much as Palestinians—as long as the recent levels of security cooperation between the PA forces and Israel continue. The greatest immediate risk from the Fatah-Hamas deal is that the security forces in the West Bank, which have been vigilant and active against Hamas and other terrorist groups, might now dial down their activity in order to avoid confrontations. That would allow Hamas to gain ground in the West Bank and is the most serious danger from the unity deal. American officials should be warning the PA against this now and threatening aid cutoffs if such a trend appears.
But much of the aid the United States gives to the PA is cash—and that money should not be delivered until the situation is much better understood than it is today. Who will run what? What will Hamas’s influence be? How much freedom will it have to agitate, organize, and conduct acts of terror? Until we know more, handing over large amounts of cash—$200 million this year—would be foolish.
But to focus on aid deliveries at all is to overlook the tougher and more consequential question just down the road: Palestinian elections. The whole purpose of the new government, which is meant to be temporary, is to organize new elections. On June 2, Abbas announced that “the government’s task is to facilitate the issue of elections, which will take place within six months as agreed [between Fatah and Hamas].” In other words, new elections this year. Abbas has many times in the past announced new elections that never took place, but he may actually be serious this time: He is 79 and seems desirous of retiring.
The last parliamentary elections were held in 2006, and there was a major dispute about whether Hamas should be allowed to run. Abbas then argued strongly and successfully (in that he persuaded Washington to back off) that an election without Hamas would be illegitimate: He would be barring his only real opponent, in the manner of all Arab dictators. We in the Bush administration made the wrong call and sided with Abbas, over Israeli objections. As Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs, “In retrospect, we should have insisted that every party disarm as a condition for participating in the vote.” She was right, for several reasons.