Two Allies' Tacks On Hamas Dilemma
Israel, U.S. Express Degrees of Tough Talk

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struck quite a tableau as they met yesterday with reporters in the ornate Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department -- two influential and relatively young female diplomats. Together, they urged the emerging Palestinian government led by Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

At the end of the news conference, when a reporter asked what happens after a Hamas government is formed, Livni forcefully answered that the Palestinian Authority would be a state "led by terrorists" and would need to be cut off by the international community. Rice did not answer and ended the news conference by shaking Livni's hand. But, earlier, Rice had said: "We await the outcome of the government formation process because that will tell the tale of what is possible."

The exchange illustrated the dilemma facing both the Israeli and U.S. governments. Israel is desperately trying to hold together an international consensus that a Hamas-led government is unacceptable, fully aware that, as the shock of the election result wears off, there will be pressure to work with the Palestinian government and provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Livni, who spent almost an hour one-on-one with Rice yesterday, has urgently made the case that the international community must hold the line both publicly and privately.

The Bush administration also talks tough, but it is unsure of its next move. For the moment, the administration says it supports the "caretaker government" of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during this "interim phase." One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the administration's options appear increasingly limited, though diplomats are drafting ideas and policy papers on the ramifications of the vote. "There is an element of 'waiting for Godot' in all of this," he said.

The election victory of Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, in effect turned back the clock of Middle East diplomacy by two decades. The United States, which once said that a Palestinian state was possible by the end of President Bush's tenure, is once again trying to cajole the Palestinian leaders to take the fundamental step of recognizing Israel's right to exist. In repeated statements in recent weeks, Hamas leaders have plainly said that the most they will offer is a long-term truce -- and then only after Israel returns to the borders it held before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israeli officials have said that this is unacceptable. At the news conference, Livni argued that Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip over the summer, taking a chance for peace, but the Palestinians have made their choice. It is "an open window of opportunity, and I hope it's not closed," she said. According to an Israeli official, Livni was blunter in her meeting with Rice, telling her the window was "slammed shut."

The administration's uneasiness was illustrated by Rice's remarks at the news conference. She sidestepped a question about what aid to the Palestinians would be restricted, saying it is a "changing and evolving situation." Unlike Livni, she never uttered the word "Hamas" or its State Department designation as a terrorist organization. Instead, Rice spoke vaguely of a "government of the Palestinian people," leaving open the possibility that Hamas could retain its charter calling for the destruction of Israel while a Palestinian government containing Hamas-linked ministers accepts international conditions.

There are several ways this could be accomplished. Hamas could split into a political wing and a military wing, or the cabinet could be largely made up of technocrats and moderate Palestinians, though it would be approved by the Hamas-controlled legislature.

Israeli officials are very concerned about such a possibility, believing that it would be especially attractive to Europeans who help fund much of the Palestinian Authority's operations. A statement issued last week by the group that monitors the peace process -- The Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- merely said "it is inevitable" that aid would be reviewed.

Israel this week paid a monthly installment of about $50 million in taxes and customs duties owed to the Palestinian Authority, but Livni said the payments would end on legal and moral grounds as soon as Hamas entered the government. If the new government does not recognize previous agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then Israel will not be required to fulfill this one, she said.

But though Israeli officials want to isolate the Palestinian Authority, they do not want it to collapse -- otherwise, Israel, as the occupier, would be legally required to pick up the pieces. A collapse would leave Hamas in complete control of Gaza, though it would be like a prison, and there would be no real government in the West Bank, except for Israeli military authority.

A collapse would also leave the Americans with no real Palestinian interlocutor, because it would likely mean the departure of Abbas.

Earlier this week, interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wants to set the permanent borders of Israel, mentioning three large settlement blocks that Israel would keep. It is not clear how Israel could take such a step without the backing of the United States -- and Rice warned yesterday that Israel should not "unilaterally predetermine the outcome of the final status agreement."

But, Rice acknowledged, the "two-state solution has to begin from the premise that both Palestinians and Israelis have a right to exist."

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