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Obama administration seeks to bridge rift with Israel over Palestinian unity government

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, center, attends the first unity government meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

The Obama administration sought Tuesday to bridge a rift with Israel over the willingness of the United States to recognize and fund a new Palestinian government affiliated with the militant group Hamas, arguing that the new government deserves a chance to succeed.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf read a lengthy statement defending the U.S. position even before reporters could ask her about harsh criticism from Israeli officials.

She stressed that the announced lineup of ministers includes none who are members of the militant Palestinian group that has advocated Israel’s destruction. The new coalition reunites the moderate Fatah faction — which has held peace talks with Israel — with Hamas. Palestinian leaders believed that the split was a major stumbling block to the goal of statehood and that a unified government would be stronger.

“They are all technocrats, unaffiliated with any political party, and are responsible for facilitating new elections,” Harf said of the cabinet lineup. “We will be judging this technocratic government by its actions,” including compliance with pledges to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Israel called the American position a slap in the face. Members of Congress quickly agreed, and two Republican senators called on the administration to reconsider aid immediately.

“Israel is deeply disappointed” by the U.S. decision to pursue “business as usual” with the Palestinians, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, wrote on his Facebook page.

“Had Hamas changed, it would be one thing” to continue regular contact and funding, Dermer wrote, “but Hamas hasn’t changed. It remains as committed to Israel’s destruction today as it was yesterday.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Associated Press that he is “deeply troubled” by the U.S. position. He has urged other nations not to recognize the unified government announced by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“All those who genuinely seek peace must reject President Abbas’s embrace of Hamas, and most especially, I think the United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian president that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable,” Netanyahu told the news service Tuesday.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington issued a statement commending the U.S. position.

“The U.S. government understands very well that Palestinian unity is crucial for the prospect of peace in the region,” the statement said.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, said any international move that legitimizes Hamas is a dangerous mistake.

“I don’t think that people in Washington understand the depth of Israel’s disappointment over the decision to support this government,” Gold said.

“Hamas isn’t just a terror organization. Hamas is not just fundamentally against peace and against Israel’s right to exist. Hamas is an organization that has adopted an agenda to annihilate Jews.”

William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.



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