After pushing the envelope for the past few years, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas finally might have pushed too far. The stalwart backing the PA has received from the U.S. government — which results in upward of $500 million in total annual funding — appears to be waning.
This comes as the PA, controlled by Abbas' Fatah faction, is attempting to finalize a "unity government" with the designated terrorist organization Hamas, something widely viewed as a death knell for potential peace talks.
Republicans and Democrats alike have grown frustrated with Abbas' antics, namely forcing a statehood vote at the United Nations adamantly opposed by the Obama administration and now pushing forward with the unity government.
Summing up the widespread view among lawmakers, Rep. Steven R. Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who sits on the powerful panel that writes the foreign aid bill, says flatly, "There has been great disappointment in Abbas."
If the unity government actually comes together — and with the Palestinians, it's an open question until the moment it happens — direct U.S. cash assistance would halt immediately. Indirect aid, such as assistance for U.S.-trained Palestinian security and grants to nongovernmental organizations or PA agencies through the U.S. Agency for International Development, also could be curbed.
Many in Congress would like to go even further.
Aside from funding cuts, there are a number of ways that the United States could squeeze a Hamas-partnered Palestinian government. Because Hamas is a proxy for Iran, the playbook to follow would be the tactics employed against that dangerous regime.
Rothman, who has championed sanctions and other tough measures against Iran, thinks no possible approach should be left off the table in fighting a unity government, explaining, "The entire gamut of sanctions that the U.S. now employs against terrorist nations such as Iran would certainly have to be examined."
The administration also could expect further congressional pressure to use the tools at its disposal. Rep. Edward R. Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the terrorism subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has a strong bipartisan track record, says, "As long as Hamas is in any government, the administration is going to have to adjust to that reality, including looking for new possible designations by the Treasury Department."
Treasury designations against entities controlled by a new unity government could result in assets being frozen, not just in the United States, but around the world. By themselves, Treasury designations aren't necessarily crippling, but they can be very painful and make life much more difficult.
Financial pain could be a critical pressure point. According to several media reports, Abbas' top economic adviser, Mohammed Mustafa, is one of the leading candidates to head the new Fatah-Hamas unity government. This signals not just a political closeness between Fatah and Hamas, but also potentially an economic one — an obviously troubling sign.
Although the latest push for a unity government could collapse, Abbas already was on very shaky footing in Washington following his defiance of the Obama administration in insisting on the statehood vote at the United Nations.
What has saved Abbas in the past has been the steadfast support of Israel and its allies, on the grounds that his leadership was a preferable alternative to Hamas. Now it's not so clear.
In his push for a unity government, Abbas has attempted to sideline PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, long viewed as the only high-ranking Palestinian official who could be trusted to direct Western assistance for the betterment of the Palestinian people.
Without Fayyad at the helm, neither Republicans nor Democrats feel confident in the PA's ability to use responsibly the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual U.S. assistance. Of course, because money is fungible, any impropriety by the PA is ultimately funded by U.S. taxpayers, directly or indirectly.
Echoing comments from several of his colleagues, Rothman maintains that the Palestinians deserve meaningful scrutiny, noting, "So long as the Palestinians are receiving U.S. taxpayer aid, there must continue to be vigorous enforcement of the laws on the books that require the Palestinians to end incitement and maintain a single Treasury account for financing to enable U.S. oversight."
In years past, when the PA either appeared to be attempting negotiations with Israel or was being wooed to the bargaining table, enforcement of solid U.S. laws waned in areas such as incitement or transparency. In some instances, the PA was outright given a free pass.
But that was when Abbas was seen as the Great Hope for Peace. After the U.N. vote, the unity government and other recent provocations, he appears to have few friends left in Washington.
All of this could leave the Palestinians in an unusual position in Washington: on the defensive. If Congress has its way and the U.S. really puts the PA under the microscope, Abbas might not like what results.