WASHINGTON — Influential Democrats in Congress are staying cautious on the question of the U.S. stance toward the Palestinian unity government in the wake of the news that three Israeli teens were found dead in the West Bank.
Israel has placed the blame for the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel (a U.S.-Israeli citizen), and Eyal Yifrach, who disappeared weeks ago while hitchhiking in the West Bank, squarely on Hamas; "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday. Some members of Congress have been calling for the United States to stop aid to the Palestinian Authority ever since Hamas joined a unity government with Fatah in early June, but it doesn't look like the deaths of the boys will lead to that yet — especially since the unity government is thought to be unlikely to stay together in the wake of the incident.
"The United States should stand shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli allies and provide support in the effort to bring the murderers to justice," said House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel in a statement to BuzzFeed. "However, we don't know all the facts about this yet, so I don't want to speculate about next steps."
"These boys had their whole lives ahead of them, and deserved so much better," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. "As a mother, a Jew, and a public servant, my heart goes out to their families, friends, and the Israeli people. The terrorist cowards who perpetrated such heinous crimes must be brought to justice swiftly."
Wasserman Schultz declined to comment on the possible dissolution of the Palestinian unity government.
"No, no comment on that topic at this time," said her spokesman Sean Bartlett. "The congresswoman's main concern is for the families right now, and that justice be delivered."
"There is substantial evidence that this murder is the responsibility of Hamas," said Rep. Brad Sherman, one of the top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We must bring to justice, not only the murderers, but their commanders."
Sherman's spokesperson forwarded a previous statement about the unity government when asked about Sherman's position on it: "It appears [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas was careful to form a government of technocrats, one that does not include any Hamas operatives, something that would almost certainly require us to cut off all aid to the PA," Sherman said when the government was formed.
The statements mirror the State Department's careful wording on the issue of its decision to work with the unity government in light of the murders.
"I'm not going to make any predictions, of course we do look at all kinds of information as it relates to the Palestinians as it relates to any entity that we work with," said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki at Monday's press briefing. "As we have stated from the beginning, and the point I was trying to make, is that we would be constantly reviewing as it relates to action on the ground, whether they are abiding by the components that they have — the pledges that they made at the beginning."
Psaki said that Abbas had been a "cooperative partner" in the search for the boys and that the technocratic government that doesn't include members of Hamas had been abiding by its obligations.
The crisis, said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is likely to result in the unity government falling apart anyway. Only if the government stays together will there be a major push in Congress to pressure the administration to cut ties, if it doesn't do that on its own, he said.
"It's not likely that the Palestinian unity government will hold amidst this crisis," Schanzer said. "Abbas has granted the Israelis access to the West Bank to conduct its operations. Hamas has been furious about this, which explains the rockets fired from Gaza in recent days."
"If the unity government holds, and Israel is able to provide definitive proof of Hamas culpability in the kidnappings, the administration may still try to hold to the line that this is a government of technocrats under Abbas, but Congress will not have any of it," Schanzer said.
And already, some Republicans are renewing calls for the United States to cut off aid to the Palestinians.
"The administration should have immediately suspended its aid to the Palestinians once the unity deal was announced, and this latest tragic incident, in which Hamas members are reportedly responsible for the murders of three Israeli teens, only serves to reinforce that," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia. "The administration needs to get serious about enforcing the U.S. law regarding this and suspend all aid to the Palestinian unity government and press Abu Mazen to cut his ties with the terrorist organization immediately."
She and Ted Deutch, a Democratic congressman from Florida, released a joint statement on Monday calling for Abbas to dissolve the unity government.
House and Senate panels both recently voted in favor of an appropriations bill for next year that would cut spending to the PA and tighten restrictions in the current law on aid to the PA if it includes Hamas.