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U.S. Wary of Palestinian Plan

A proposal by Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government may not be enough for America to resume aid, officials say.

September 13, 2006|Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Palestinian plans to form a coalition government have created a quandary for the Bush administration, which wants to ease suffering in the Gaza Strip and West Bank without lifting pressure on Hamas.

Leaders of the radical Islamic group, and those of the rival Fatah faction, announced this week that they were close to completing a deal that they hoped would persuade the West to end an aid cutoff that had bankrupted the government and set off factional fighting.

U.S. officials, who consider Hamas a terrorist group, have halted all but direct humanitarian aid since Hamas came to power in January elections. U.S. officials have said they want to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the territories, but noted Tuesday that the Palestinian proposal might not be enough to end the aid ban.

The U.S. bind was complicated by Europe's warm reaction to the Palestinian unity government plan, posing a risk that a new transatlantic rift could develop over the issue. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week after a visit to the region that it might be possible for the West to deal with a unified government.

Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said U.S. officials would look at details of the plan, which have not been completed.

"We are continuing to be mindful of the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people," Casey said. But he said that before aid could be resumed, the Palestinians would need to renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

"From what we have seen so far, we are certainly concerned" that the coalition government does not accept those demands, Casey said. The stipulations were laid out in January by the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Israeli officials did not close the door on potential relations with a unity government when the deal was announced Monday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah.

On Tuesday, an Israeli official sounded more skeptical, saying the deal seemed to be an effort to put a more presentable face on the government without making key changes or concessions.

Restoring aid would lift the pressure on Hamas just when the crunch was beginning to have an effect, the official said, noting that polls showed public support in the territories shifting away from Hamas and toward Fatah. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the diplomacy underway.

Some analysts said the Bush administration would be influenced by the Israeli government's attitude and probably would not resume aid. But they speculated that Washington could decide not to object to a European decision to resume, or increase, assistance.

"The Americans will probably react coolly to it, but they may say to the Europeans, 'If you have to [resume aid], we can live with it,' " said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy predicted that U.S. skepticism would prevail.

"I think people in Washington are going to be pretty underwhelmed by it," Makovsky said. The Palestinians are "playing with words and trying to get the world to give them as much money as possible without being bound to anything."

Many U.S. lawmakers could object loudly to any resumption of aid. Both houses of Congress have passed bills this year to limit the provision of direct aid to the Palestinian government as long as Hamas is in power. The European Union followed with a partial aid cutoff.

The U.S. government has provided $468 million in direct humanitarian aid to the Palestinians this year, Casey said.

The Palestinians' worsening financial crisis pushed Hamas into an alliance with Fatah, which recognizes Israel's right to exist, in hopes of getting aid flowing again.

But Hamas has no plans to recognize Israel, its spokesmen said. Instead, the government is expected to stake out a nuanced position that implies acceptance of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict -- and therefore of Israel -- without saying so explicitly.

The agreement serving as the basis for the proposed government tacitly recognizes Israel by calling for creation of a Palestinian state along borders predating the 1967 Middle East War, meaning in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital.

That may not be direct enough to satisfy the Bush administration and Israel, but it could convince some European donors that Hamas has shifted its stances sufficiently and sway them to resume financial aid, analysts say.

"What the Palestinians are really hoping for is a breakthrough with the Europeans, who will judge the political program not so much in relation to the three conditions as in the difference in the Hamas position, so they will see this as a positive sign," said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordanian-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.


Richter reported from Washington and Ellingwood from Jerusalem.

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