Danon in US 'pleasantly surprised' by Congress's stance

With unity on horizon, drive to strip PA of US funding gains ground

Legislators concerned administration could slow-walk application of law banning funding of terror groups; White House says it won’t fund Hamas

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Hamas members take part in a military show in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 29, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas members take part in a military show in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 29, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — With an announcement of the Palestinian unity government expected any day, Israel’s deputy defense minister came to Capitol Hill Thursday to rally Congress behind cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority — only to find that the move to suspend funding already had strong bipartisan support.

While some lawmakers have expressed concern that the Obama administration may delay enforcement of a 2006 law that would demand the suspension of funding, legislators are prepared to exercise Congressional oversight to force the administration’s hand, Danny Danon said Thursday.

Danon said that cutting all funding to the PA was his main message during a one-day visit to Washington. Danon’s trip included meetings with a number of prominent legislators, including committee heads.

“I spoke with a number of committee heads and they said that it was very clear that the 2006 Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act applies in this case,” Danon told The Times of Israel.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, March 19, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Danon said Israel’s message to Congress was that all aid should be cut to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas, considered a terror group by Israel and the US, joins an interim unity government — even if it turns out no members of the terror group hold ministerial positions in the technocratic government.

While Danon said that a number of legislators expressed concern that the administration might try to drag its feet in enforcing the legislation, he said that they had assured him that Congressional hearings would be held to ensure that the law would be enforced.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction, because I thought that I would have to explain our position to them,” Danon said, emphasizing that he encountered strong bipartisan support for cutting aid to any Palestinian Authority unity government with Hamas.

Administration officials asked Thursday about future relations with a Palestinian unity government emphasized a wait-and-see approach rather than committing to a decision regarding the administration’s response.

National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said that the administration “will not make decisions until we see the final formation of the interim government and have the opportunity to assess and make a determination about whether this is a government we can work with.”

Meehan added that “we have been clear about the principles that must guide a Palestinian government in order for it to play a constructive role in achieving peace and building an independent state. Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties.”

She added that while PA President Mahmoud Abbas “has been committed to these principles,” the administration still views Hamas as a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

“The United States does not, and will not, provide it assistance. Nor do we maintain contact with Hamas,” said Meehan in a statement.

The White House denied Palestinian reports that Rami Hamdallah, thought to be named prime minister of the unity government, had been invited to Washington to meet with “White House and Congress officials,” a report that at least one Palestinian official said Thursday represented US recognition and acceptance of the planned unity government.

State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the State Department “will make decisions, broadly speaking, when we see the final formation of the interim government.”

Last month, shortly after plans for a Palestinian unity government were announced, Psaki told reporters that “any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties.”

But last week, officials sought to differentiate between the willingness of a technocratic government to abide by the preconditions even if a member organization — in this case, Hamas — does not.

An anonymous senior White House official told the Israeli Haaretz daily that the US would work with the new government as long as it abides by the conditions, even if it has Hamas’s support. A meeting of 28 European Union foreign ministers last week took a similar position.

“We want a Palestinian government that upholds those principles,” the White House official told Haaretz. “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.”

Earlier this month, Hamas’s Moussa Abu Marzouk described recognition of Israel as “a red line that cannot be crossed” and spurned any commitment to disarm any part of Hamas. Speaking in Doha last week, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said that “Hamas has already made sacrifices and this was necessary to be closer with our brothers, but with the invader we will not make any compromises,” implying that terror activity against Israel will continue despite the unity agreement.

Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (L) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad (left) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, on April 23, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The likely scenario of the formation of the interim technocratic government with no Hamas political appointees also raises the question among policymakers in Washington of whether the spigot should be shut off.

Those who support the immediate application of the 2006 law argue that the very inclusion of Hamas — or support of Hamas for the government — makes the law applicable.

The funding block for a government that includes Hamas was reaffirmed most recently as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, in which the United States is barred from funding any governmental body “effectively controlled by Hamas, any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member, or that results from an agreement with Hamas and over which Hamas exercises undue influence.”

The act stipulates that the clause can be overridden if the president “certifies and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that such government, including all of its ministers or such equivalent, has publicly accepted and is complying with the principles contained in section 620K(b)(1) (A) and (B) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended.”

Nevertheless, the president can only utilize the waivers to the law if he can satisfy a number of claims, including that “the Palestinian Authority is acting to counter incitement of violence against Israelis and is supporting activities aimed at promoting peace, coexistence, and security cooperation with Israel.”

Shortly after the announcement of Hamas-Fatah plans to form a unity government, members of Congress from both parties lined up to threaten Congressional action should the PA include Hamas.

Rep. Nita Lowey, seen here meeting with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa in Washington in February 2010, is vying for the top Democratic spot on the powerful U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. (Courtesy Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs/JTA)
Rep. Nita Lowey meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa in Washington, February 2010. (photo credit: Courtesy Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs/JTA)

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told JTA that she would “be working with the State Department on the logistics of suspending assistance” to the PA unless Abbas ceased working toward the agreement.

“At this point, the law is clear, their actions are clear and the path forward is clear,” Lowey said. Lowey’s office did not respond to queries Thursday as to whether she planned on taking any immediate steps should an agreement be announced in the near future.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) (photo credit: courtesy)
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) (photo credit: Courtesy)

On the opposite side of the aisle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a statement saying that “US law is clear on the prohibition of US assistance to a unity Palestinian government that includes Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and President Obama must not allow one cent of American taxpayer money to help fund this terrorist group.”

Still, Congressional responses to proposed reconciliation contained nuanced distinctions regarding what constituted a unity government with Hamas.

A letter to President Barack Obama circulated by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) took a middle ground, saying that the law “is very clear” that “if a unity government is formed with Hamas ministers, aid cannot be provided to the Palestinian Authority unless these conditions are met.”

A second letter, circulated by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Rush Holt (D-NJ), and David Price (D-NC) took a broader stance, warning that “the United States must carefully examine the composition and policies of any interim government before moving to alter the United States relationship with the Palestinian government in accordance with US law.” The letter reiterated that any government must meet the preconditions for continued funding.

Another letter, sent earlier this month to Secretary of State John Kerry from senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) called on Kerry to “state publicly that there will be an immediate cut-off of relevant US assistance unless there is full compliance with the letter and spirit of all provisions in the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.”

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