A Rare Opening for the U.S. in Palestine

After months of political deadlock and escalating violence, Fatah and Hamas have agreed to cease fighting and establish a national unity government, in line with the Mecca Agreement recently sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Although this new government will be led by the current prime minister, Ismail Haniyya, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party will control six ministries. The agreement presents the United States with an opportunity to begin rehabilitating its badly tarnished image in the Middle East by resuming the flow of international aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Hamas’ electoral victory prompted Israel and the international community, led by the US, to implement a strategy of economic coercion in order to bring down the radical government. Withholding economic aid never significantly reduced Hamas’ popular support, nor did it force Hamas to accept the Quartet’s three demands: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and accepting prior agreements.

This policy has, however, crippled the PA, compelling Hamas to accept a power-sharing agreement with Fatah. Although the Mecca Agreement does not meet the Quartet’s conditions, it moves significantly in that direction. Hamas has promised to “respect international resolutions and the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization” and has accepted the Prisoners’ Document that implicitly accepts a two-state solution.

The Bush administration maintains that for its current policy to change, explicit acceptance of the Quartet’s provisions is necessary. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult for the US to maintain the international support needed for sanctions to be truly effective. Saudi Arabia has already promised the PA $1 billion, increasing the likelihood that more Arab countries will follow suit. While the United Kingdom remains committed to sanctions, other European countries, like Russia and France, may also resume transferring aid to the PA.

The other option available to the US is to resume the flow of international funds to the PA, even though Hamas has not accepted the Quartet’s three conditions. This policy could achieve several important objectives. First, it would strengthen moderates who for the past year have had no influence in the Palestinian Cabinet. Second, it would reduce the growing influence of Iran, which has become an important patron of Hamas. Third, it would improve living conditions within the Occupied Territories, which could in turn diminish popular extremism.

Public opinion polls indicate that although most Palestinians approve of Hamas’ hard-line stance, they are critical of its ability to govern effectively, and they still support final-status negotiations with Israel. These polls suggest that the Palestinian public could either become more moderate or radicalize. The latter is more likely to occur if the international community continues to withhold funds, which could contribute to the collapse of the power-sharing agreement and the resumption of violence.

While the transfer of US aid would help produce a more stable, internationally supported Palestinian government, it will certainly not resolve all of the problems between Palestinians and Israelis. The low level of trust between the parties and the weakness of both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert make it unlikely that final-status negotiations will begin, let alone succeed, in the near future. Nevertheless, a Palestinian government founded on the principles of the Mecca Agreement would be more willing and better able to resume meaningful negotiations with Israel. This could lead to interim accords, such as a cease-fire and prisoner exchanges, which would lay the foundation for further diplomacy and help begin a process of rebuilding trust between the parties.

Finally, resuming aid would help to repair America’s image in the Middle East. Until now, the embargo against the PA could be justified by Hamas’ stated goal of destroying Israel. Upholding this policy against a government that does not profess this aim appears to many as unnecessary, punitive, and dangerous. Possible repercussions include a humanitarian disaster, a Palestinian civil war, and increased popular support for Hamas and other radical groups. Many would blame the US for these developments. Although there is a chance that the Mecca Agreement may not survive even with American aid, taking concrete steps to support the unity government could place the blame for a breakdown on Hamas. This could help achieve what economic sanctions never did – diminishing Hamas’ popular support.

Given the current US stance, it is not surprising that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent meeting with Olmert and Abbas did not make any progress. If the Bush administration is serious about pursuing negotiations, it needs to resume funding to the Palestinian government. If it does not, Abbas will remain too weak and distracted by internal Palestinian problems to negotiate effectively with Israel. Despite the likely opposition in Congress to a change in policy, the Bush administration should seize this opportunity to improve what is presently a disastrous situation.