New tensions for Obama, Israel

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The Obama administration’s decision to work with the new “unity” Palestinian government backed by Hamas is creating new tensions with Israel and its champions on Capitol Hill.

Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, said Israel is “deeply disappointed” that the U.S. would work with a government backed by Hamas, which is recognized by the State Department as a terrorist group.

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Later in the week, Israel protested the new government by announcing plans to build new settlements and unfreeze earlier projects.

Members of Congress, including Democrats, have raised the idea of halting annual U.S. aid of about $500 million to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) called the government “an affront to peace” that puts humanitarian assistance at risk, while Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said U.S. funding for the government would be in “jeopardy.”

The administration has defended the decision partly by pointing out that the new government’s 17 ministers are all technocrats unaffiliated with a political party. Most are the same people who served in the prior government.

Officials have also said Israel is working with the new government.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro on Thursday noted that Israel itself transferred $135 million in new taxes collected for the Palestinian Authority, to the unity government backed by Hamas. He also said it had pledged continued security cooperation in the West Bank.

Supporters of the administration argue the decision to work with the unity government reminds them of 2006, when the Bush administration didn’t object to Hamas taking part in legislative elections. That backfired when Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian party, lost out to Hamas.

“I hope we don’t make that mistake again,” Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations who advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the Israeli-Lebanese conflict in 2006.

Some argue the Obama administration could find itself in a similar mess if there are new elections in the Palestinian territories and ministers with direct ties to Hamas are elected.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said elections will be held in six months. Secretary of State John Kerry has said the U.S. will “calibrate” its views based on the new unity government’s actions.

To supporters of Israel, the U.S.’s willingness to work with the new government stoked resentments that the Obama administration is more open to the Palestinians and critical toward Israel. Those feelings have reverberated during Obama’s term ever since his 2009 speech in Cairo promising a new beginning in the U.S. relationship with the Arab world. The president has also been seen as having a chilly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“My sense is the Obama administration is looking to set an independent course for things in the Middle East where our interests are deeply involved, and they’re not going to let someone dictate to us what our policy should be,” said Ed Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton.

Abrams and others say it is wise for the administration to express a willingness to work with the new government, despite the ill feelings from Israel and some of its supporters.

Jon Alterman, who worked at the State Department in the early 2000s, said the exchange with Israel signals “volatility” in the relationship.

“We’re at a point where two very closely aligned countries get into quite public political spats…because it could be handled quietly. It could be managed quietly. There’s a decision on one or both sides not to do so,” said Alterman, who now serves as the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Working with the new Palestinian government, however, could help the U.S. preserve influence going forward.

Edward Djerejean, who also served as a U.S. Ambassador to Israel under Clinton, said lawmakers should “think twice” about cutting off aid to the Palestinians because he said it could “drive moderates into the hands of extremists.” 

He downplayed Israel’s response, arguing the spat was a “domestic quarrel that will be resolved.”