Obama and Netanyahu clash over Hamas

By Anshel Pfeffer and Nathan Guttman, April 30, 2009
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A row has broken out on the eve of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ visit to Washington next week over a move by President Obama to allow US aid to reach the Palestinian Authority even if it is run by a government which includes members of Hamas.

Sources within the Israeli government have described the clause, in the US administration’s emergency spending request to Congress, as an extremely negative development which will give a lead to other western governments and encourage them to transfer funds to Hamas-controlled agencies.

“There is no way we are going to get any closer to peace with the Palestinians if we give concessions like these,” said a senior official at the Foreign Ministry.

But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was grilled on Capitol Hill over what seemed to be a shift in approach to Hamas, insisted the change does not amount to a willingness to engage with Hamas. She stressed that the only reason for the change is “not wanting to bind our hands” in case a unity government agreement is reached between Hamas and Fatah. Her message was repeated in private talks between Israeli and US officials.

But the explanation was dismissed by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk as being similar to supporting a government that has “only a few Nazis” in it.

President Peres’s meeting with President Obama, which would normally have been little more than a formality, is now seen as an important preparatory step for the crucial Obama-Netanyahu meeting on May 18.

In the month since Mr Netanyahu’s government was sworn in, his ministers and aides have already exchanged opening salvoes with the Obama administration over issues such as the “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the need to go forward on negotiations with Syria and the desirability of engaging with Iran over its nuclear programme.

“Peres is just the guy to try and explain these kind of problems to Obama,” said a presidential aide, “and smooth the way for Netanyahu.”

Jerusalem believes that there is still a residual suspicion towards Mr Netanyahu after the rocky relationship he had with the Clinton administration in his first term as premier.

Mr Netanyahu and his advisers are preparing a comprehensive diplomatic plan that will address both the Palestinian and Syrian issues and serve as Israel’s response to the Arab League Peace Plan. The hope in his office is that after President Obama showed enthusiasm for the Arab Plan, he will be similarly open to the Israeli version.

One of President Peres’s key tasks in Washington next week will be to gauge just that.

Last updated: 1:52pm, April 30 2009