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US to Work with Palestinian Unity Government

  • Victor Beattie

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah talks to media after the first unity government meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 3, 2014.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah talks to media after the first unity government meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 3, 2014.

The United States says it intends, for now, to work with the new Palestinian unity government, including continued foreign assistance. But, Washington said, it will judge the government by its actions and calibrate its approach. A Mideast expert says that while both Palestinian factions stand to benefit from the arrangement, it will do little to advance the suspended peace process in the near term.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing Monday the interim technocratic government announced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not include ministers affiliated with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which Washington has designated a terrorist organization.

"Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we will be watching closely to ensure that it upholds the principles that President Abbas reiterated today," said Psaki.

Psaki said Abbas reaffirmed his support for the principles laid out by the Quartet on the Middle East, involving the United Nations, European Union, the United States and Russia. Those principles include recognizing the state of Israel, renouncing violence and abiding by previous agreements.

Abbas swore in the new unity government Monday following a landmark reconciliation deal with Hamas. His Fatah party has governed only the West Bank since Hamas gained control of Gaza in 2007.

University of Pennsylvania political science professor Ian Lustick said both factions benefit from the deal.

"As long as Hamas needs the support it could conceivably get from the international community through the Palestinian Authority, it has an interest in playing nice with Fatah. And, Fatah has an interest in playing nice with Hamas because it needs some source of legitimacy on the West Bank. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority is not held in high regard by most of the population of the West Bank. They’re seen as living relatively high off the hog and certainly not accomplishing anything vis-à-vis the Israelis. So, if the government can get an agreement with Hamas to reunify and that can be recognized and worked with by the international community while Israel opposes it, it is a kind of a political victory that Fatah enjoys," said Lustick.

Lustick said the timing of the unity government likely has to do with Abbas’ need to hold elections and the collapse in April of the latest effort at peace talks with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged world leaders not to recognize the Palestinian government, saying it will "strengthen terrorism.” His government suspended U.S.-sponsored peace talks April 23, after the two Palestinian factions announced their intention to form a unity government.

Lustick said that while Hamas still wants Israel’s destruction, it takes a long view of its struggle with the Jewish state. He said the Islamist group may be open to a negotiated settlement that does not require it to recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but only a kind of ‘generation-long’ cease-fire, like the peaceful co-existence between East and West during the Cold War.

Lustick also said that if the Palestinian government manages to hold together for a couple of years, it is possible Israel will come around, given the benefits that a security arrangement with the Palestinian Authority gives it. If Palestinians are able to hold elections in Gaza and the West Bank that produces a government seen by Palestinians as legitimate, he said, it is possible some Israelis will see an incentive to negotiate seriously.

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