Palestinian activists have hailed the unity deal between Hamas and Fatah on April 27 as a positive outgrowth of the Arab Spring. If the reported deal, brokered by Egypt, ends the internecine war between the two most powerful Palestinian factions without a shot fired, it would be cause for celebration in the West Bank and Gaza. But if the deal means the inclusion of the designated terrorist organization Hamas in the new interim Palestinian government, it could raise potential challenges for the United States.
While the makeup of this transitional entity is still murky, the question of how to handle potential Hamas participation has already been tackled by a sitting president: George W. Bush. As much as might pain him, Obama can and should take a page out of his predecessor's playbook.
In January 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections by a landslide. The Islamist faction, best known for acts of violence against Israel, claimed 76 of 132 seats, granting it the right to form a government. The victory was a blow to U.S. policy. Bush had believed the elections would legitimize the democratization process he had put into place, under the leadership of Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas.
After the election, Washington chose to isolate Hamas as a result of the group's ongoing attacks against Israeli civilians. The Bush administration quickly disavowed any Palestinian government that included Hamas. The decision was a no-brainer; the State Department labels Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), barring the U.S. from all formal diplomatic engagement with it. And the Treasury Department labels Hamas as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, requiring the U.S. to shut off the spigot of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, and any institution that has Hamas involvement. In fact, the White House even demanded that the PA return $50 million in direct aid.
However, to make it clear that the U.S. remained sensitive to the Palestinians' needs, the Bush administration reportedly increased overall humanitarian aid to them by more than 50 percent.
Bush also found ways to support his Palestinian allies legally. For example, he extended financial support for Abbas' administrative and personal security costs, saying they were "in the national security interest of the United States."
All the while, Bush continued to discuss the potential for a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state, as long as it rejected terrorism.
Bush ultimately failed to achieve his long-term goal, but he succeeded in blocking Hamas from gaining credibility or access. This was critical then. It's critical now. If Hamas does, in fact, play any role in the new interim government, Obama has little choice but to do the same.