Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas completed a 180-degree diplomatic turnabout on Monday as he swore in a unity government with Hamas just weeks after abandoning peace talks with Israel.
Despite Abbas’s claims that the new government will be comprised of technocrats committed to honoring the peace process, Israel has denounced it as a pact with terrorists incompatible with any negotiated agreement.
However, a few hours after the swearing-in ceremony in Ramallah, the United States said that it will work with the new Palestinian entity. The American position constitutes a rebuff to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s urgings for international condemnation.
“Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government, and if needed, we will recalibrate our approach.”
Psaki also said that the Obama administration does not intend to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, which comes to approximately $500 million a year.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Netanyahu by phone on Monday evening. “Abbas has promised us that the new government will abide by the requirements of the Quartet, and they have our blessings,” said a spokesman for Kerry. Those requirements include renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, both of which Hamas continues to reject.
The European Union has taken a similar wait-and-see approach, which became the target of Netanyahu’s ire on Monday. Netanyahu accused European countries of hypocrisy for condemning the killings at the Jewish museum in Brussels while remaining mute as the Palestinians form a government with terrorists.
“It’s strange that governments in Europe are harshly condemning this murderous act and at the same time are talking ambiguously and even affably about a unity government with Hamas, because Hamas is a terror organization that commits crimes like these and praises crimes like these,” he said Monday.
Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister in Gaza, made a speech on Monday belying the peaceful intentions professed by Abbas. Haniyeh once again called for “resistance by all forms,” and boasted that Hamas’s military arm, the Qassam Brigades, “became an army today.”
In addition to the 25,000-member Qassam Brigades, Hamas reportedly also controls 20,000 other armed personnel.
At emergency cabinet meetings Sunday night and again on Monday, Israel took no dramatic action. The ministers reaffirmed the policy of not negotiating with the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues its embrace of Hamas. In addition, they agreed that the amount of money transferred to the PA should be reduced. Israeli refusal to allow entry to three Hamas ministers from Gaza into Ramallah kept them away from the swearing-in ceremony.
The cabinet also authorized the prime minister to impose additional sanctions on the Palestinian Authority.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) condemned the Palestinian move, saying that “the replacement of ministers in the Palestinian government is just a pretty wrapping for the terrorist attacks that were conducted and will be conducted under their protection. Now, all aid given to the Palestinians by the United States and other countries directly aids terror attacks against the state of Israel.”
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) termed the Hamas-Fatah coalition a continuation of the Palestinian “sabotage” of negotiations.
“[Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas formed a terrorist government today, with murderers who killed hundreds of Israelis, proving once again that he is not interested in peace with the state of Israel,” Ariel stated.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s rhetoric was more evocative of the foreign minister he aspired to be. “We need time to evaluate the new government. Now is not the time for harsh criticism. I suggest my friends in government not give Hamas the ammunition they need to turn the tides against us just for the sake of some local headline.”
Lapid added, however, “The international community now knows the Palestinians are the ones who refused to make peace.”
The Palestinian move is seen as a calculated risk, almost certain to provoke stepped-up Israeli sanctions and possibly the suspension or reduction of American and European financial aid. Abbas said over the weekend that Israel “informed us … they would boycott us if we announced the government.”
While the Obama administration waits to see what will unfold in Ramallah, Congress is displaying less patience.
“Hamas is no partner for peace, nor a legitimate recipient of aid,” California Republican Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Monday.
“While the ‘unity government’ hides behind the facade of non-partisan bureaucrats, it was only born out of support from Hamas — a terrorist organization that continues to call for Israel’s annihilation.”
Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, said that aid should be suspended while they evaluate the new Palestinian government. “The laws of the United States prohibit assistance to terrorist organizations,” Cantor noted in a statement.
The Congress authorizes $500 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, the agreement to set up a 16-member cabinet serves their mutual interests. Hamas is in desperate need of money to keep the Gaza economy going and meet its payroll of 40,000. Abbas hopes it will shore up his domestic support since the peace talks with Israel collapsed.
Monday’s ceremony in Ramallah was nearly derailed at the last-minute by a lingering dispute over ministerial powers. Hamas had announced that it would not support the new administration because of a decision by Abbas to scrap the Ministry for Prisoner Affairs and replace it with a committee outside the control of the cabinet.
But Hamas official Salah Al-Bardaweel said it was agreed that the ministry would be given to Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah, “and the dispute between Hamas and Fatah has been resolved,” according to Reuters.
The prisoners’ minister deals with Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Rami Hamdallah, the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, will continue in his job. Hamdallah, 55, is regarded as a figurehead, plucked from years in academia because of his loyalty to Abbas.
The cabinet is to be temporary and tasked with preparing for general elections in 2015, though there are signs that neither side is looking forward to a democratic future.
“The elections will not happen,” said George Giacaman, the dean of graduate studies at Birzeit University. “Forming a government is a symbolic step … we should not exaggerate the expectations.”
In fact, some analysts say there is likely to be little change in the distribution of power among the Palestinians. Hamas will continue to rule Gaza, while Abbas will remain unchallenged in Ramallah.
The government, packed with obscure technocrats and academics, will manage day-to-day affairs, like a glorified municipality, but decisions concerning diplomacy and security will be made elsewhere.
“Such a government won’t be able to end the divisions. Rather, it is a political body aimed at managing the division,” said Hani al-Masri, a political analyst.