State of transition? What U.S. support of Palestinian unity government means for MENA power balance
A potentially important diplomatic development underway in the Middle East, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz’s Monday edition, is Washington’s “tending toward cooperating with the soon-to-be-formed Palestinian unity government, even if Hamas as an organization does not accept the conditions of the Middle East Quartet to recognize Israel, honor previous agreements and abandon violence.”
Such a development would be a valuable step for the three concerned peoples. It would signal a more rational American policy that could start to dampen the U.S. self-generated lack of credibility and respect around the entire Middle East; it would force Israelis to react to the reality of how isolated they have become, as their closest ally separates from them in this area at least; and it would allow the Palestinians to show a united face to Israel and the world, anchored by a commitment to a negotiated, permanent and fair resolution of the conflict with Israel.
Such an American move would also be a major blow to Israel’s sustained and largely successful attempts to keep Washington tightly tethered to the ideological views of right-wing Zionist extremists who now dominate both Israel and the battalions of pro- Israel lobbyists in the United States.
Haaretz quoted a senior White House official as saying that as long as the platform of the future Palestinian government meets the conditions of the Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – the U.S. would be satisfied. The official was quoted as saying: “We want a Palestinian government that upholds those principles. In terms of how they build this government, we are not able to orchestrate that for the Palestinians. We are not going to be able to engineer every member of this government.”
This is a significant change from the situation eight years ago, when Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and headed the new government, which promptly elicited an Israeli-American boycott of that government. This time, the Palestinians have been more diplomatically astute by announcing clearly and often – as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did in recent meetings with top U.S. officials John Kerry and Susan Rice – that the new government will be committed to Abbas’ diplomatic program and will abide by the Quartet’s three conditions. The U.S. wisely seems to have decided to separate its distaste for Hamas from the criteria it uses to determine whether to engage with a Palestinian unity government supported by Hamas and virtually all other factions.
This suggests that Washington may be defining the legitimacy of the Palestinian interlocutors it deals with on the basis of American values and interests, rather than on the basis of frenzied Zionist hysteria that has shaped such American decisions in the past and made a laughingstock of American diplomacy in the world.
The European Union announced a similar position last week, saying it would continue to support a Palestinian government composed of independent figures that met the Quartet’s three criteria. In contrast, the Israeli government announced it would not negotiate or cooperate with a Palestinian government “backed by Hamas.”
The much more realistic American-European position acknowledges a widespread political reality – one also acknowledged in Israel – that sees a government’s policies contradicted by the positions of some of its members. A similar situation exists in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s positions sometimes contradict the policies of the Lebanese government in which it serves.
If the U.S. and the EU practice pragmatic diplomacy and engage with the new Palestinian unity government, this will severely isolate the Israeli government internationally, which would likely lead to one of three options: Israeli public opinion could force a new general election to validate or throw out the current rightist government; or Israel could provoke some new military crisis with the intention of showing the world that Hamas’ inclusion in the Palestinian government only leads to violence. The third option is for Israel to “punish” the Palestinians for abiding by the Quartet conditions, by squeezing the occupied territories even more than usual in the arenas of finance, travel, construction, water and other such vital realms.
All three options would lead to a similar result: to shake up stalled diplomacy and force all players to probe for more effective ways of resolving the long-running conflict between Palestinian Arabism and Zionism.
The Palestinians are right to keep exploring any opportunity for a fair, negotiated peace agreement and to clarify for the world that Israel’s colonization and Apartheid-like Jewish supremacist ideology in Palestine are the main reasons for lack of diplomatic movement. It will be fascinating to see whether the U.S. and the EU will make gestures toward demanding that Israel similarly comply with the Quartet criteria, which Israel blatantly has not done in some areas, such as continued colonization and its use of violence.
By Rami Khouri