The Cable

29 senators: No U.S. aid for a Palestinian unity government

29 U.S. senators have asked President Barack Obama Friday to cut off aid to the Palestinian government if it joins with Hamas, in a previously unreported letter (PDF) obtained by The Cable.

"The decision of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas - a designated terrorist group - threatens to derail the Middle East peace effort for the foreseeable future and to undermine the Palestinian Authority's relationship with the United States," begins the letter, which was spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Robert Casey (D-PA).

Menendez is the third ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Casey chairs SFRC's Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs subcommittee. The letter was also signed by Democratic heavyweights Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The details of the deal between the PA and Hamas aren't entirely clear. Many of the sticking points between the two Palestinian factions appear to remain unresolved and the contents of the reconciliation deal's classified annex remains unknown, but, as the senators' letter notes, Hamas foreign policy chief Mahmoud al-Zahar has said that "our plan does not involve negotiations with Israel or recognizing it."

Hamas also publicly condemned the May 1 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan.

For all these reasons, the senators want Obama to make it clear that the PA will forfeit  U.S. foreign assistance if it goes through with the plan to join forces with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.

"As you are aware, U.S. law prohibits aid from being provided to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless the government and all its members have public committed to the Quartet principles," they wrote. "We urge you to conduct a review of the current situation and suspend aid should Hamas refuse to comply with Quartet conditions."

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) agrees. "No taxpayer funds should go, they must not go" to the new Palestinian unity government, she told the Washington Post May 4.

The Obama administration is currently examining the Palestinian reconciliation deal, but officials have repeatedly said in recent days that any unity government must reject Hamas's current policies.

"Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements and it must recognize Israel's right to exist," White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, told the American Jewish Committee on April 28.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated Daley's message at Thursday's press briefing, and implied that a government that includes Hamas would not be able to work with the United States.

"We've said very clearly that we'll 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. And that includes the road map," Toner said. "And our position on Hamas has not changed. We still believe it's a foreign terrorist organization."

"The Obama Administration knows the law prohibits U.S. aid going to a Palestinian government in which Hamas plays any role. That's why the administration has said several times in the past week that the United States will only deal with a Palestinian government that meets the Quartet conditions -- renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and accepts all previous agreements," said former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now a partner at the consulting firm Davis-Block LLC. "If Hamas wants to transform itself, surely that would be welcome, but it's not likely."

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The Cable

Clinton holds out hope Syria’s government will reform

The difference between the situations in Syria and Libya is that the Syrian government might still come around and pursue a reform agenda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.

In an interview with Lucia Annunziata of  Italy's "In Mezz'Ora" in Rome, Clinton was asked whether the United States was applying a double standard when dealing with Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and other Arab dictators who are killing their citizens, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Clinton explained that she still held out hope that the Syrian government would institute reforms that could satisfy the demands of protesters and end the government-sponsored violence against civilians. There was no hope for that outcome in Libya, she said.

"There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms," she said. "What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we're going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that."

Clinton argued that the United States and its international partners have acted aggressively in the case of Syria, but admitted that acting against the Assad regime is more complicated, in many ways, than organizing action against the Libya regime.

Clinton was also asked how long she thought the war in Libya would last.

"Well, I think everyone, including, of course, the United States, is working urgently to try to bring about a political solution," she responded. "The obstacle is Col. Qaddafi."

Clinton insisted Qaddafi's death was not part of NATO's mission in Libya, although she noted he might be killed if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The objective is to protect civilians. But there are legitimate targets, like the command-and-control bunkers and facilities that we know he and his family control," Clinton said. "This is a conflict and he could become a victim of the very violence that he initiated."