In response to my inquiry, a State Department official authorized to speak only on background commented on the signing of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement:

We understand the concerns of some members of Congress. As a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its policies and will determine the implications for our assistance based on U.S. law. Going forward, with respect to the agreement, what is important now is that the Palestinians ensure implementation of that agreement advances the prospects of peace rather than undermines them. We have made clear that we will only work with a Palestinian Authority government that unambiguously and explicitly commits to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the Roadmap.

That’s quite a lot of double-talk. But it is clear enough on this point: the administration as of now will continue to use taxpayer money to fund a Palestinian entity co-run and co-founded by Hamas.

The reaction on Captiol Hill was fierce. A Democratic aide pulled no punches in responding to this position, “If there are actively anti-Semitic terrorists in the Palestinian government, they will not get a single U.S. cent in aid. Period. That is not just my opinion, that’s our nation’s law. It’s in our statutes. The PA knows that. The administration knows that. And Congress certainly knows that. This diplomatic speak coming out of the State Department does not contradict that reality and I know the Administration will do the right thing in the end, but this type of rhetoric is a large part of why many of Israel’s supporters never liked the State Department anyway.” His faith in the administration may not be shared by others.

An experienced Israel-watcher on the Hill was blunt: “This is pathetic even by the usual standards of State Department pabulum, given that Hamas has just condemned America for eliminating Osama and called him a martyr. As Jesse Helms once said, there is a need for an ‘American desk’ at State.” And a Republican Senate aide was restrained, but clear: “Congressional leaders are anxiously awaiting the fine print of this deal to review its implications for U.S. assistance under current law. There’s no room for ambiguous State Department statements on this issue. The law is clear and it must be enforced to the fullest extent.”

I spoke to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies about the administration’s verbiage. He was measured in his criticism, “The White House and State Department seem to be buying for time and waiting for the current situation to square with U.S. law.” He thinks the administration will be unsuccessful in using the excuse that the actual components of the unity government may be non-Hamas figures. He says that nevertheless, “It can’t be denied that the new government has the participation of Hamas,” and that should rule out funding. The Palestinian “have been creating these false firewalls for decades,” he added.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is the distinct possibility that this unity deal will not endure. Schanzer says that he doesn’t “expect the deal to last.” Perhaps the administration is making the same bet, but in the meantime it is heading for a faceoff withCongress, which will not countenance even temporary funding of an entity in which Osama bin Laden’s mourners play a role.