U.S. Policy Toward Palestinian Authority-Hamas Deal: Any Change Coming?

By Barry Rubin

Here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Hamas-Palestinian Authority deal:

"We obviously are aware of the announcement in Cairo yesterday. There are many steps that have yet to be undertaken in order to implement the agreement. And we are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice.

"We’ve made it very clear that we cannot support any government that consists of Hamas unless and until Hamas adopts the Quartet principles....So we’re going to wait and make our assessment as we actually see what unfolds from this moment on."

Translation of paragraph one: I'd rather not deal with it now because we can hope the deal will fall through and then we won't have to do anything at all.

Translation of paragraph two: This is badly worded by her since the phrase "government that consists of Hamas" makes no sense. Presumably she meant a government that includes Hamas. Having said this, she warns that the U.S. government won't support such a coalition regime unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel. That change in U.S. policy would be a major development.

But note two parallel situations:

--Egypt, President Barack Obama has said he would support the Muslim Brotherhood in the government.

--Lebanon, the Obama Administration has apparently accepted Hizballah as part of Lebanon's government with minor reservations like not meeting with Hizballah ministers.

So why is Hamas different? Partly it is only the result of pro-Israel congressional and public opinion that restrains the administration.

I predict that it won't get to the point of a coalition government. This deal is just propaganda for presenting a unilateral declaration to the UN from a united Palestinian front. Neither side wants free elections to be held, according to the agreement, in May 2012.

Yet while Clinton's statement has generally been reported as a strong stance that's not exactly so. If, for example, Hamas nominates ministers who are not proven members of the group (which is what they are saying they'll do) or cooperates with the Palestinian Authority in anything short of an actual coalition government, Clinton's warning would not be triggered. The same is true if Hamas finds some language that pretends to accept the Quartet conditions.

Clinton also signals a hesitation to act now by talking about waiting to see what happens. This stance leaves loopholes in which Hamas can be strengthened and legitimized while the United States does nothing. In short, this is not at all a strong U.S. stance but actually means little. The PA can easily believe that it would lose nothing in terms of U.S. or European support by partnering with Hamas.

But if there is a coalition regime and the U.S. government backs down, accepts it, continues aid, makes fostering talks with Israel a top priority, and putting the main onus on Israel for a lack of progress, that would be a very profound betrayal.