Palestine and Western aid
Will it be cut off?
The Israelis ponder their next move in the wake of Palestinian reconciliation
FEW Arab towns collect rubbish as smoothly as Bethlehem.
No sooner have the merchants lowered their shutters at the end of the day than the dustmen under the command of Iyad abu Rudeineh are primed to enter its tangle of restored old alleys.
Much of this success, he admits, is due to an American road-building project that has eased access.
Yet in the wake of a recent reconciliation agreement between Palestine's two main rival parties, the secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas,
he fears that American support may cease. For the United States and many Arab and European countries deem Hamas a terror group.
They are prepared to support the Palestinian Authority (PA) run by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah (pictured), but not if Hamas is involved.
By the time the pope visits Bethlehem on May 25th, he may find the streets strewn with rubbish.
The risks are real. Barely two years have passed since America ended its most recent boycott of Bethlehem.
That lasted seven years, after its townspeople had elected representatives from two factions designated by America as terror groups to its council.
Mr Abu Rudeineh worries that the billboards recently erected hailing the accomplishments of America's aid arm, USAID, could soon look out of date.
Palestinian officials say USAID officials cancelled meetings, albeit apologetically, the day after Hamas and Fatah announced their agreement.
Congress, the American officials explained, would not let them “finance terror”.
Whereas the agreement offers Gazans the prospect that their seaside enclave, run by Hamas, may no longer be boxed in by Israel and Egypt,
Mr Abbas's fief in the West Bank, inland, could end up paying the price.
But America has not yet cut ties as a result of the deal. The day that USAID officials cancelled the meeting,
the World Bank awarded 13m for wastewater projects and America's secretary of state, John Kerry,
hosted a banquet for businessmen to drum up cash for a scheme for investment in Palestine. On the same day, says a senior Palestinian,
Barack Obama talked to Mr Abbas for half an hour on the telephone. While new projects may be put on hold, American officials say old ones may continue.
A music festival backed by USAID in Jericho, in the Jordan valley, for instance, went ahead.
Israel's government says it wants the West to show “moral clarity” by cutting support for any Palestinian government backed by Hamas,
a group that has been responsible for killing more than 1,000 Israelis, many of them civilian.
America's Congress may concur with the Israelis, and cut funds to the Palestinians in response to the Fatah-Hamas deal.
But other American officials see a possible benefit if Hamas comes to accept the notion of a two-state settlement with Israel.
These Americans argue that Hamas's dire straits in Gaza may enable Mr Abbas to secure an advantageous deal for himself,
paving the way for his return to power there. And they fear that past boycotts of Hamas may have deprived Western countries of influence in Gaza and helped the Islamists to tighten their grip there.
In any case, says one, it would be good if Europeans and Arabs were to make up the shortfall in aid to the Palestinians,
should Congress prompt the American administration to pull out.
So far the Israeli government's response has been more bark than bite. In response to the Fatah-Hamas deal,
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, declared that he was suspending negotiations with Mr Abbas and stopping the transfer of customs revenues which comprise two-thirds of Mr Abbas's PA budget.
But he did so only after first allowing the monthly transfer to proceed, nervous lest the PA might collapse without it,
thereby stoking general mayhem in the West Bank. Israel, it has been noted, has itself bargained with Hamas in the past,
arranging repeated ceasefires with it since 2004.
Some Israelis think that they have something to gain by having Hamas on board.
“Political accommodation between the two major Palestinian factions offers Israel the assurance that its negotiating partner has the political legitimacy,
even if not the full backing, of the Palestinian people,” says Yonatan Touval of Mitvim, a liberal foreign-policy think-tank in Tel Aviv.
Before cutting aid for good, Mr Netanyahu may wait to see who exactly will be in the Palestinians' unity government and what its programme will be—indeed,
whether it will happen at all.