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Update from AIJAC

June 3, 2014
Number 06/14 #01

This Update deals with the establishment of a new "technocratic" Palestinian government  - agreed on by Fatah and Hamas and sworn in yesterday - following on from a unity deal reaced in late April. It probes the reasons for the agreement between bitter rivals Fatah and Hamas, the issues likely to come up between them, and the implications for hopes of progress toward peace. 

First up, veteran Israeli Arab affairs journalist and analyst Pinhas Inbari, in a piece written Sunday before the final deal was announced, looks at the negotiations and impetus for the new administration. He says that it came about because Hamas and Fatah felt they had no choice - but also because the US and EU have an interest in pushing Palestinian unity. He also notes that a key disagreement between Fatah and Hamas was over the interior ministry because Hamas wanted to halt security cooperation with Israel. Moreover, ominously, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was ultimately given this role, and Inbar notes that Hamdallah is on the record as an opponent of such security cooperation. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE. More on the Hamas-Fatah divisions and complications which continue with this government comes from Avi Issacharoff of the Times of Israel.

Next, Matthew Levitt and Neri Zilber of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in another piece written before the latest announcement, go beyond the make-up of the government to look at a variety of other issues likely to create controversy between Hamas and Fatah going forward. These include how to fudge the fact that the government will say it recognises Israel and renounces violence while Hamas is publicly saying the opposite, difficulties over security control in Gaza, controlling the border with Egypt, and the parallel Hamas and Fatah civil services that exist in Gaza. Also likely to create controversy are the details of plans to hold an election in six months, and a promise to restructure the old Palestine Liberation Organisation to allow Hamas to join. Levitt and Zilber conclude that true reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will require overcoming all these problems, and for all the complexities involved, CLICK HERE More on the many explosive issues the new unity arrangement must face comes from Khaled abu Toameh.

Finally, Robert Satloff, also of the Washington Institute, deals with the crucial US role going forward and the dilemmas Washington will face. He first discusses US policy toward a Hamas-backed government, and how this relates to reported past promises to Israel and US legislation barring aid to a government including Hamas (since this piece was published, Satloff has published an additional clarification on the exact wording of the US promise to Israel, and the apparently differing interpretations of it.) He then goes on to discuss the further US difficulties in dealing with the upcoming Palestinian election and coping with Palestinian efforts to join UN agencies, which would trigger US legislation forcing the withdrawal of all US financial contributions to the agencies concerned. For Satloff's discussion in full, CLICK HERE.

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Efforts to Establish a Palestinian Unity Government

Pinhas Inbari

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has imposed on the current Ramallah prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, the mission of forming the new “unity accord government,” in a step that looked like progress in forming the government, but actually was a failure since  the Palestinians were supposed to form the government by May 29. They will probably declare a government within the next two weeks. However, an analysis of the reasons why they failed to establish the government before the first deadline may provide a tool to judge the chances for its success once it is established.

Firstly, why do we believe a government will be established despite the difficulties? Because both Fatah and Hamas have no choice now but to succeed. Another failure will establish the final fact that Gaza and the West Bank are separated forever. But of no less importance are the Western powers: the U.S. and Europe are interested in the establishment of this government.

Yet a number of disagreements remain, including over the identity of several ministers in key positions: Interior Ministry – security; Foreign Ministry – foreign policy, the identity of ambassadors, and the Waqf Ministry which controls the mosques.

At the Interior Ministry the issue at stake is twofold: paying salaries to Hamas’ military wing – the Qassam Brigades – and halting IDF-Palestinian security cooperation (or, as Hamas defines it, collaboration. Hamas supported the nomination of Hamdallah as prime minister because he also stands against IDF-Palestinian security cooperation. Palestinian sources say that in the meeting that took place in London between British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Abbas, Cameron expressed reservations about Hamdallah because the British are deeply invested in the security cooperation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar concerns, but it seems that Kerry is eager to have this government come to life and is ready to remove obstacles in order for it to materialize.

Regarding the Foreign Ministry, Hamas objects to the current minister, Riyadh al-Malki, because he belongs to anti-Hamas secular circles in Ramallah and they want somebody that will not instigate against them in regional and international diplomatic quarters. They prefer either the current deputy prime minister, Ziyad Abu Amru, or a Christian woman like Hanan Ashrawi.  Their strategy is to insert their personnel into the Palestinian diplomatic corps. They assess that Malki will not permit it, unlike Abu Amru who is closer to them, or a Christian figure who might be too weak to quarrel with them on the issue.

The Waqf Ministry is of no less importance because it controls the mosques. The current minister, Mahmud al-Habbash, who left Hamas (but did not join Fatah), was very tough on Hamas in the West Bank mosques. He removed their preachers from the mosques and controlled the Friday preaching that prevented them spreading their message. In addition he controlled the Mecca pilgrimage administration that triggered endless quarrels with Hamas in Gaza over the lists of pilgrims and their travel accommodations.

The patron of the entire process is Qatar and thus it became part of the intra-Arab quarrels. Saudi Arabia sought to compel Qatar to stop its financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Qatar did not stop, so the money to Hamas is scheduled to arrive via Qatari aid to the new government. This made the Saudis indifferent – if not hostile – to the unity government process. They already told the Palestinian Authority that their aid is at risk because the two parties do not mention the Mecca accords in their unity agreement.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s prime ally in the region, is also indifferent to the matter, although they enabled Musa Abu Marzuq to enter Gaza in order to facilitate an agreement. As far as we know, up until now there is no Egyptian agreement to regulate the Rafah crossing, despite the fact that the EU is deeply involved in efforts to regulate it.

Why is the West supporting the move? There are two main reasons. Kerry did not give up his peace initiative and he is waiting for the proper moment to put his comprehensive peace proposal on the table. Even a façade of unity may provide him a kind of “window of opportunity.”  As for President Obama, this is another effort to advance his “outreach to Islam” vision, as it may be regarded as a step towards “politicizing Hamas.”  The EU is encouraged by the policy of the current U.S. administration and perceives it as a last chance to establish a Palestinian state.

This complicates the regional political scenery further, as the U.S. appears to back the main rivals of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the region: Qatar and Turkey. In addition, there is the Western dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program.

In summary, we can expect a new Palestinian government to be announced mainly because the U.S. and the EU are involved in efforts to end this odyssey successfully.

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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Palestinian Reconciliation: Devil in the Details?

Matthew Levitt and Neri Zilber

PolicyWatch 2258, May 28, 2014

 

How -- and if -- Hamas and Fatah overcome formidable security, institutional, and political roadblocks should dictate the international response to their unity deal and joint government.

As rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah prepare to announce the names of ministers for a joint technocratic government as soon as this week, it remains unclear how the various provisions of last month's tentative reconciliation deal will be implemented in practice. On a wide array of issues -- security, public employees in the Gaza Strip, the dormant legislature, future elections, and the composition of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- uncertainty still reigns. How these issues are resolved -- assuming they are resolved at all -- should dictate U.S. and international policy toward Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

FIRST PRINCIPLES

In the wake of Hamas's 2006 legislative victory, the international community made clear that any future Palestinian government must adhere to the three principles laid out by the Middle East Quartet (i.e., the UN secretary-general, the European Union, the United States, and Russia): (1) recognizing Israel, (2) renouncing violence, and (3) respecting prior Israeli-PLO agreements. Similarly, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly insisted that any unity government would abide by these conditions and therefore be eligible for continued donor aid and diplomatic recognition. In a May 5 interview, however, deputy chief Mousa Abu Marzouk of the Hamas Political Bureau said that the Quartet conditions "do not concern us one bit," adding that recognition of Israel was a "red line that cannot be crossed" and that the group's armed brigades would not be disarmed "under any circumstances."

A technocratic government that does not officially include Hamas might allow the Palestinians and the international community to effectively fudge the Quartet conditions, or so the thinking goes. But regardless of who sits at the head of the government or any given ministry, a host of security, institutional, and political issues will still need to be addressed. It is on the basis of these sticky details that the reconciliation agreement should be judged.

SECURITY ROADBLOCKS

Perhaps the most fundamental challenge to reconciliation is the question of security integration and reform. For the Fatah-led PA and the international community, continued Palestinian cooperation with Israel in the areas of counterterrorism, law and order, and crime fighting is critical. Fatah seeks to maintain the stability it has worked hard to achieve in the West Bank, to keep doors open for future negotiations with Israel, and to remain in the good graces of the international donor community.

Yet such cooperation with Israel is anathema to Hamas. Although Hamas prime minister Ismael Haniyeh recently announced that he had reached agreement with Fatah on elements of "the security file," group leader Khaled Mashal declared, "The reconciliation does not mean an end to our resistance against the invaders, resistance will continue as long as the occupation exists." Another high-ranking Hamas official, Gaza secretary-general Abdul Salam Siyam, was equally blunt, stating (implausibly) that security cooperation with Israel was "criminalized" according to the terms of the unity deal.

Beyond the rhetoric, though, the "security file" includes several significant logistical barriers to reconciliation. Most tangibly, Gaza's Finance Ministry indicated this month that Hamas's security services include approximately 25,000 employees, "and most of them belong to the Qassam Brigades," the group's elite terrorist wing. According to one account, two-thirds of Hamas policemen were serving as police officers by day and Qassam Brigade operatives by night as early as 2010.

In light of the group's explicit commitment to continue battling Israel, determining how to deal with Hamas militants is a significant challenge. In a recent statement to the media, one Qassam Brigade official explained that under a new unity government, "these employees will take orders from the brigade's military leadership, not their current manager at the Ministry of Interior." Alternatively, if these Hamas forces do yield to the unity government's authority, then arrangements would have to be made to insulate the official Western-backed and funded Palestinian Security Forces from their militant colleagues in Gaza.

According to several reports, the current reconciliation agreement calls for 3,000 West Bank Fatah policemen who worked in Gaza prior to the 2007 Hamas coup to return to the coastal enclave and reintegrate into the local security forces. In addition, Abbas's Presidential Guard forces would reportedly resume their former duties at the Rafah border crossing, but armed only with light weapons. Recent media speculation also indicates that an Egyptian-supervised "Arab commission" may be established to restructure Gaza's security services in accordance with formal Palestinian law -- a nebulous statement of intent that further highlights the high bureaucratic and ideological hurdles posed by Hamas's intention to uphold its militant independence.

Indeed, the token number of Fatah officers reportedly slated to return to Gaza will clearly not be able to rein in Hamas -- and Hamas know this. As one group member told the media while downplaying the deployment of "only 3,000" officers, "the security forces and weapons will remain under Hamas control, and no radical changes will take place in its structure, at least during the first year."

In this regard, Hamas is likely following the well-worn and successful path of the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Following the 2007 takeover of Gaza, Qassam Brigade commanders reorganized their loosely structured underground militia into a formal security service with advanced weapons such as missiles, rockets, and even unmanned aerial vehicles. Hamas is now loath to relinquish these military capabilities and is likely trying to negotiate an arrangement in which it retains its arsenal and independent "resistance" militia even as its members participate in the unity government -- similar to Lebanon, where Hezbollah ministers serve in government. "Hamas wants to avoid ministerial responsibility for civilian matters," one unnamed group official recently remarked, "but it wants to maintain its power as a popular-resistance group."

Even apart from questions about the Qassam Brigades, it is unclear who, if anyone, would be responsible for preventing the various non-Hamas extremist groups in Gaza from attacking Israel. What is clear is that neither Hamas nor Fatah wants that responsibility.

PUBLIC-SECTOR EMPLOYEES IN GAZA

The unity deal will also have to resolve the thorny issue of other government employees in Gaza. Some 40,000 Hamas personnel (e.g., teachers, doctors, nurses, clerks) currently form the heart of the territory's public bureaucracy. And since the Hamas takeover, the PA has continued paying salaries to some 70,000 Fatah-affiliated Gaza employees, despite the fact that the vast majority of them no longer work. Haniyeh recently indicated that no public-sector employees in the territory will be fired due to the reconciliation agreement, and with local unemployment nearing 50 percent, there are social and humanitarian reasons for avoiding mass layoffs.

Yet various donor nations, particularly in the EU, have long urged the PA to rationalize its bloated public payroll. Fiscal prudence requires that any new Palestinian government address this issue instead of simply adding Hamas cadres to the official PA payroll. Indeed, unofficial reports indicate that Hamas has been promoting certain personnel to midlevel posts in its ministries -- many rumored to be unqualified for the positions -- simply in order to maintain a hold on Gaza institutions after a technocratic changeover.

ROLE OF THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL

A major component of the unity agreement is that the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the PA parliament that has not convened since 2007, be "reactivated." Hamas holds a majority in the 132-seat body, including the top seat -- group member Aziz Duwaik is speaker of the parliament and, by law, first in line to the PA presidency if Abbas resigns or is incapacitated. Under that scenario, Duwaik would assume the post for an interim period of sixty days, during which new presidential elections would need to be held.

Logistically, it is unclear if Israel would permit Gaza parliamentarians to travel to the West Bank for PLC meetings in Ramallah, and nine legislators are reportedly still being held in Israeli jails. Policywise, a key PLC function is overseeing the PA budget, and although a genuine budget drafting process is unlikely to be undertaken in the coming months, the Hamas-majority legislature could wield undue influence over PA economic priorities, ministry resources, and development projects.

FUTURE ELECTIONS

The publicly stated end goal of the reconciliation process is to hold presidential and legislative elections no earlier than six months after the seating of the unity government. Indeed, the initial unity government's main task is reportedly to prepare for such elections.

Abbas has previously stated that he does not intend to run in another election, yet such promises are easily reversible. According to opinion polls, he is still more popular than any other candidate and would be favored.

As for legislative elections, Abbas passed a little-noticed presidential decree in 2007 changing the electoral law to an all-proportional representation system (i.e. party lists). This marked a significant change from the mixed-system 2006 election in which sixty-six seats were determined via proportional representation and another sixty-six through district voting. At the time, Hamas and Fatah were essentially level in proportional representation, but the district votes went overwhelmingly to Hamas (45 seats versus Fatah's 17). A public affirmation of the 2007 decree would signal Abbas's serious intent to hold open elections despite the inherent risk.

PLO QUESTIONS

The unity deal also calls for continued discussions on restructuring the PLO, the transnational political umbrella group of the Palestinian people. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have long called for an overhaul that would help them gain inclusion, but it is unclear how such a process would take place.

The Palestinian National Council (PNC), the nearly 700-member PLO parliament, has not officially met since 1996 (an "extraordinary" session took place in 2009 in Ramallah, but the body has not achieved a legal quorum in nearly two decades). It is currently dominated by Fatah, yet the criteria for PNC membership are opaque. Delegates hail from a reported thirty countries, representing not only Palestinian political parties but also trade unions, student groups, and professional associations. Further complicating matters is the fact that the PNC voted to amend the PLO Charter during its 1996 session, excising clauses calling for armed struggle and the destruction of Israel.

CONCLUSION

Thus far, the international community and Israel have taken a "wait and see" approach regarding the Palestinian reconciliation agreement. While Israel suspended peace talks due to the Hamas-Fatah pact, it did not move forward with threatened financial sanctions against the PA.

For their part, Hamas and Fatah have taken tentative steps on the road to what they refer to as "national consensus." Since the initial accord was signed last month, rival newspapers have been allowed to operate again in the West Bank and Gaza, and Hamas relinquished control of Abbas's Gaza residence. In turn, Hamas members have been allowed to operate more openly in the West Bank, taking part in a joint demonstration with Fatah in Hebron and holding a mass funeral rally in Ramallah for two long-dead terrorists.

As the above issues make clear, however, the obstacles to true reconciliation between the two factions remain significant. Their ability to make progress on security, institutional, and political changes will dictate not only the future trajectory of Palestinian politics, but also relations with the international community and the prospects for reviving the peace process with Israel. Especially where Hamas is concerned, the devil is certainly in the details.

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute. Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Institute, is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture.

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With the Peace Process on Hold, Washington Still Faces Key Israeli-Palestinian Tests

Robert Satloff

May 30, 2014
PolicyWatch 2260

In the coming days, the Obama administration faces key decisions on how to respond to a Palestinian government "backed by Hamas," whether to condone Hamas participation in Palestinian elections, and what strategy to adopt in response to another effort by Palestinians to enhance their status in the UN.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be at an impasse, but the Obama administration still faces a number of critical decisions on this issue in the coming weeks. While it is no longer a front-burner topic for an administration confronting crises from Syria to Ukraine, how Washington handles these questions will send signals about leadership and principle far beyond the Arab-Israeli arena.

PALESTINIAN UNITY GOVERNMENT

The administration's first challenge is how to respond to the expected announcement of the formation of a new Palestinian government envisioned in last month's Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord. On the surface, the administration's position is clear -- as various spokesmen have affirmed, Washington will only work with a government that endorses the "Quartet principles," i.e., recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence and terror, and endorsement of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. In an effort to satisfy these conditions -- and thereby maintain an uninterrupted flow of U.S. financial assistance -- Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly received Hamas assent for the creation of a technocratic government under current PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah that would affirm those principles as it sets about its main task: preparing for elections before year's end.

But therein lies the rub: Hamas's assent. While the legislative language governing U.S. aid to the Palestinians offers the administration wiggle room to argue for providing assistance to a Hamas-backed government that affirms the Quartet principles, the administration evidently gave Israel a specific promise that it would not deal with any Palestinian government "backed by Hamas." According to authoritative American and Israeli sources, that broader assurance was first made to Israel by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following President Obama's May 2011 addresses on the Middle East, after Israel signaled its readiness to accept a U.S.-negotiated draft Quartet statement (the statement was never issued because not all Quartet members approved). The assurance was then specifically affirmed by Secretary of State John Kerry prior to the start of his peace initiative last year.

So far, Israeli officials have been reluctant to wave this commitment in the administration's face, principally out of respect for Secretary Kerry, whom they believe acquitted himself with integrity throughout the peace effort even if he and his team share some responsibility for the current impasse. For the same reason, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his close advisors have not pointed a finger at Kerry for complicating the prisoner-release issue by telling Palestinians that Israel had "committed" to freeing Israeli Arabs -- a pledge Israel never made.

Still, the Israelis have signaled their expectation that Washington fulfill its promise not to deal with a Palestinian government "backed by Hamas" by using those words in their April 23 cabinet decision suspending peace talks. So far, however, U.S. spokespeople have sent the opposite signal. On May 19, for example, Israel's Haaretz newspaper cited a "senior White House official" stating that the administration would only follow the "Quartet principles" policy, without reference to the issue of Hamas backing. Indeed, the quoted official even said the administration would not look too closely at the bona fides of ministers within the Palestinian government as long as the government as a whole accepted the principles. It is not yet clear whether the Obama team's approach will mirror the one adopted by the Bush administration, which was to have no dealings with Hamas ministers -- a position that at least had the salutary effect of keeping Hamas members from significant posts. The real test, then, will come when the new Palestinian government is actually formed.

It is also unclear how exactly Israel would like Washington to fulfill its promise in practice. While it would be easy enough for U.S. officials to boycott political-level talks with ministers of a Hamas-backed government, it would be much more complicated -- and potentially destructive -- to suspend all financial assistance to the PA given that a substantial part of this funding facilitates Israel-Palestinian security cooperation, which remains in place even amid the current diplomatic impasse. Indeed, while Israel has ruled out diplomatic engagement with a Hamas-backed PA, it is still working through the complexity of this issue in terms of how much deference to give the PA in loosening restrictions on Hamas activity in the West Bank in the social, political, and security realms.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS

A related question is whether the United States will condone Hamas participation in the next Palestinian elections. After all, scheduling and holding elections will be the unity government's main goal.

This is well-trod terrain for U.S. policymakers. In 2006, the Bush administration faced a similar decision. Some counseled opposition to Hamas participation, noting the Oslo Accords' explicit electoral ban on groups that "commit or advocate racism" or use "unlawful or antidemocratic means" to achieve their political goals; advocates of this view also pointed out that armed terrorist groups cannot, by definition, be legitimate political actors without renouncing violence and giving up their weapons. Others, however, argued for acceding to Hamas participation so that the Palestinian people could choose their own leaders as they saw fit, confident in the theory that governance itself would be a moderating experience in the unexpected circumstance that Hamas won.

The Bush team accepted the second argument and urged Israel to do the same, despite Hamas's continued commitment to Israel's destruction. The unintended result was Hamas's surprise victory and eventual takeover of the Gaza Strip. Even Condoleezza Rice, a vocal advocate of Hamas inclusion in the elections when she served as secretary of state, came close to a mea culpa when she wrote in her memoirs, "In retrospect, we should have insisted that every party disarm as a condition for participating in the vote."

Eight years later, the Obama administration faces a similar choice. Today, of course, there is even less evidence for the "Hamas will moderate in power" theory than there was in 2006 -- the experience of managing the daily life of the territory's roughly two million residents has hardly softened the organization's ideological fervor. At the same time, Abbas's decision to "shut down" during the most recent peace talks with Washington -- to use U.S. envoy Martin Indyk's phrase -- has turned the peace process into a cul-de-sac from which choosing new leadership may be the only exit. Still, that does not lessen the enormity of the question facing U.S. officials: is legitimizing a U.S.-designated terrorist group by validating its participation in elections an acceptable price to pay for that uncertain achievement?

For its part, the Israeli government has taken no formal decision on the issue. Some officials reportedly believe that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal will collapse like previous accords forged in Cairo and Mecca, so there is no need for Israel to intervene. Time will tell whether that wait-and-see approach is an error; after all, Washington may view Israel's silence as assent, which could tilt skeptical U.S. policymakers toward approving Hamas participation, contributing to an outcome Israel may not wish to see.

UN WAIVER

By pursuing both reconciliation with Hamas and the "internationalization" strategy of enhancing the status of the "State of Palestine" in the United Nations system, Abbas has complicated U.S. policy on two fronts. Yet while the Hamas complication concerns a private commitment to Israel (albeit one with wider implications), the UN complication concerns a law approved by a large majority of Congress mandating a cut-off of U.S. funding to any UN-affiliated agency that votes to admit Palestine as a full member-state -- a law that is unusual for its lack of any presidential authority to issue a national security waiver. Palestine's successful 2011 bid for membership in the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization triggered the law and forced the Obama administration to end funding for that agency; earlier this year, the United States lost its UNESCO voting rights as a result of failing to pay its past dues.

The idea that enhanced Palestinian status in the UN system has translated to a loss of U.S. status has rankled some senior administration officials. In theory, there are three ways for them to address this problem: convince Palestinians that the costs of pursuing a UN strategy are greater than the benefits; convince member-states of various UN agencies to vote against Palestinian membership, lest they lose the substantial budgetary assistance that the United States provides to those agencies; or convince Israel to ask its friends on Capitol Hill to allow a national security waiver in the relevant legislation.

On the first option, while the United States has publicly opposed Palestinian accession to UN agencies, it has evidently not gone to the mat with member-states to urge their disapproval or even twisted the arms of key influential allies to get them to oppose these Palestinian efforts. On the second option, while Abbas did accede to a U.S. request to suspend the UN strategy during the peace talks, Washington has never effectively used its leverage with the Palestinians to win a blanket, open-ended commitment not to proceed down that path.

On the third option, while the administration has frequently repeated its public opposition to any enhanced role for Palestine in the UN system, an underreported story of late is the quiet but intensive lobbying by high-level U.S. officials to convince Israel to change its position on a legislative waiver. Indeed, the abortive trilateral deal in April -- in which Israel was to release the fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners, the United States was to release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and the Palestinians were to agree on extending the peace talks -- reportedly also included an Israeli commitment to drop its opposition on the waiver issue.

The collapse of that deal, combined with the shots-across-the-bow fired by Abbas when he signed fifteen UN and international conventions in April, has raised concern inside the administration that it may again be compelled to wage a UN fight against the Palestinians and, possibly, cut off funding to certain agencies if that fight is lost. While Abbas has not gone further down that path yet, numerous Palestinian political figures are urging him to challenge Israel -- and America -- on the international stage, especially before and during the upcoming UN General Assembly session in autumn. If he follows that strategy to its conclusion, many specialized agencies -- from the Universal Postal Union to the International Civil Aviation Organization to the World Health Organization -- would suffer huge damage from the consequent loss of U.S. funding, and U.S. interests in those agencies would suffer from the absence of American participation in their operations.

But rather than read Abbas the riot act to prevent him from pursuing this dangerous path the administration may still ask Israelis to accept the inclusion of a waiver in the UN-aid-cutoff legislation even without securing the other benefits they were to have gained in the April prisoner deal. Along the way, Washington would sacrifice any leverage it has to convince other countries to oppose enhanced Palestinian status in the UN system. The perverse result would be Abbas having his cake (by "shutting down" on the peace process and not responding to specific questions from President Obama) and eating it too (by scoring important political points at the UN at Israel's expense). Whether to come down hard on Abbas or on Israel is another key decision the administration will make in the coming days.

IMPLICATIONS

As the Obama administration grapples with crises of strategic importance around the world, questions surrounding the Palestinians -- the composition of their government, participation in their elections, and their gambits at the UN -- should be viewed as second-tier issues. Nevertheless, how the administration answers these questions will still have far-reaching implications -- for Israel's confidence in Washington as it girds itself for an Iranian nuclear deal that it will likely view as unsatisfactory; for preserving a diplomatic option in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for democracies around the world confronting resurgent terrorist threats; for future challengers to U.S. interests at the UN and in other international forums; and for an administration concerned about maintaining international norms. As a result, these second-tier issues deserve high-level attention.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.

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