The Bush Administration responded to Hamas assuming the reins of power in the Palestinian Authority by demanding the return of $50 million in aid, and urging others to join it in cutting all funding until the movement agrees to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing peace treaties. Israel with its center-right government looking over its right shoulder ahead of next month's election has even suspended the transfer of tax and customs revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority, that form the bulk of its budget. But when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was rebuffed by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia this week as she sought their support to cut all funding to a Hamas-led government, she was left to concede that "different countries will have different modalities and how to deal with this." In other words, the U.S. attempt to impose a financial blockade on the Palestinian Authority to force immediate concessions from Hamas has essentially been stillborn.
There are good reasons for that. Hamas, having just won a resounding election victory, is not about to make a series of declarations that they might see as a symbolic surrender. Instead, Hamas's representatives responded to the threat of financial sanctions by making their own tour of the Arab and Islamic world seeking pledges of financial support to make up for any shortfall created by politically motivated funding cuts.
And Hamas appears to have made some diplomatic headway, having met with Turkey's Prime Minister, accepted an invitation to Moscow and even won France's endorsement of Russia's policy of engagement with the new government. The Egyptian foreign minister seemed to sum up the moderate Arab response, characterizing the U.S. call to cut funding as premature: "We should give Hamas time," said Ahmed Abul Gheit after meeting with Rice. "I'm sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue."
Hamas is also playing a shrewd diplomatic game by touting Iran's readiness to fill the fiscal void. The statement Tuesday in Tehran by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal that Iran's role in Palestinian affairs should increase to make up for the loss of funding appears designed as a not-too-subtle reminder for those meeting with Condi Rice that cutting off a Hamas-led government will simply expand Iran's reach.
Turkey, Russia, France, and the moderate Arab regimes certainly agree with the U.S. and the Israelis that a Hamas government that engages in terrorism is intolerable. But they're more inclined to give Hamas the opportunity to govern responsibly rather than to immediately take steps to topple or force it to make symbolic concessions. Hamas will be judged less by its symbolic declarations than by its actions, and those that are advocating giving Hamas time to prove its bona fides will use that position as leverage against any move by Hamas to end its cease-fire.
For Hamas, having assumed responsibility for managing the infrastructure of Palestinian life and ensuring Palestinian well-being, continued terrorism which would provoke Israeli retaliation and international sanction would carry a potentially prohibitive political cost. Instead, Hamas will focus largely on domestic political reform on assuming the reins of power, and it will likely simply agree to disagree with Abbas on the issues of recognizing Israel and embracing existing treaties. But not embracing those treaties doesn't necessarily mean negating them. Hamas may calculate that as long as it refrains from terror attacks and delivers on promises of good governance, it may be able to achieve some sort of tacit coexistence with Israel while postponing the completion of a peace process that has been essentially dormant for the past five years. It's a tricky challenge, but both in their electoral eclipse of Fatah and in their outflanking of Secretary of State Rice this week, the leaders of Hamas have proven themselves to be nothing if not politically astute.