Any doubt about how the United States makes its policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be dispelled by the Obama administration's near-instant reaction to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation announcement: it is determined to be fully in sync with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Without even hearing the details of the agreement, the White House, as reported in the New York Times, "all but dismissed" it:
The White House, which has been debating how best to revive peace talks ahead of an address to Congress next month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all but dismissed the proposed reconciliation by reiterating the longstanding American designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization that has never expressed a willingness to recognize Israel, let alone negotiate with it.
"As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace," Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in the administration's only public response. "Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians."
He added that any Palestinian government had to accept certain principles announced by international negotiators known as the Quartet: the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. They include renouncing violence, abiding by past agreements with the Israelis and recognizing Israel's right to exist. Hamas has never agreed to those conditions.
Then Congress spoke. Gary Ackerman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a pro- Netanyahu stalwart, weighed in on the agreement:
"It calls into question everything we have done," Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, said in a telephone interview. He later issued a statement saying the United States would be compelled by "both law and decency" to cut off all aid.
"I don't think there is any will on the part of the administration or the Congress to provide funds to a government that is dominated by a dedicated terrorist organization," he said.
On a roll, Ackerman then said that the deal "will be paid for with the lives of innocent Israelis." Ackerman, like most of his colleagues, never seems to notice all the innocent Palestinians who die at Israeli hands (many, many more than the number of Israelis who are killed by Palestinians), as evidenced by his cheerleading for the Gaza war. Nor did he care that he did not know the terms of the Fatah-Hamas agreement.
Of course, Ackerman's statement is typical of the congressional response. In fact, one of the reasons that AIPAC cutouts like Ackerman are first to issue press releases on any matter related to Israel is to set the tone for their colleagues by indicating what the right (i.e., politically safe) position is.
But the position itself is dead wrong.
The right position would be to simply wait and see what the Hamas-Fatah agreement says. Already today, Haaretz is reporting that, under the terms of the agreement, President Mahmoud Abbas will be handling negotiations for any new unity government. (As usual, the Israeli view of events in its own region is not as stridently "pro-Israel" as in Washington.)
Considering that even Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Abbas for his commitment to peace, it is just possible that Hamas will, following Abbas's lead, change its position in coming days.
Unfortunately, the U.S. reaction to the Hamas-Fatah agreement makes any such change less likely.
In fact, the administration's demand that Hamas recognize Israel in advance of any negotiations with Israel could well ensure that there won't be any. So could our demand that it accept all previous agreements negotiated by the Palestinian Authority.
All of these issues would naturally be addressed in the context of negotiations. Demanding that Hamas accept them in advance — a position devised by the Israeli government and then pushed on the United States and the European Union — is an act of diplomatic sabotage.
There is only one demand we should make of Hamas, that it cease all acts of violence. Hamas has, in fact, lived up to that commitment during various cease-fire periods with Israel. In partnership with Fatah, it would likely do so again.
In any case, a mutual cease-fire is a reasonable demand, one that would facilitate negotiations. But the people issuing demands in Jerusalem and in Congress seem to have no interest in negotiating. Their goal is delivering for Israel which, of course, is a way of delivering for their campaigns.
This is the third time in the last few months that the combination of Netanyahu and the lobby (including, of course, its congressional allies) have successfully pressured the administration to do its bidding. The first came when the United States was forced to stand all alone at the United Nations and veto a resolution condemning Israeli settlements (a resolution that embodied the Obama administration's own policy). The second was when the administration said that it would oppose any Palestinian declaration of statehood at the United Nations this coming fall.
It appears that the administration has little interest in playing the role of "honest broker," at least until after Election Day 2012. And after that, there is the 2014 congressional election. And then the 2016 presidential election. And so it goes.
Meanwhile, as General David Petraeus famously warned us last year, the perception that the United States is in Israel's pocket "presents distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests...Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples" in the Middle East.
But, hey, that's only the national interest he's talking about. What does a general know about politics?