Abbas Patches Rift With Hamas in Palestinian Statehood Bid

Abbas Patches Rift With Hamas in Bid for Statehood
Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, second right, speaking with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, second left, in Cairo. Source: PPM via Getty Images

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to reunite the West Bank and Gaza Strip by reconciling with the Islamic Hamas group, is seeking to persuade skeptics that their accord won’t derail movement toward statehood.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately dismissed the agreement Abbas concluded in Cairo yesterday with Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, calling it a victory for terrorism. Abbas said Palestinian reconciliation is critical to his statehood ambitions by closing the rift between West Bankers and Gazans.

The power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah faction “sends a message to the world in general and to the Israelis in particular that the Palestinians are unified when it comes to the establishment of a state,” said Naseef Mualem, head of the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalemated since September, Abbas moved to heal the almost four-year schism that left his Fatah party governing only the West Bank after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. Street rallies in both territories demanding Palestinian unity echoed calls for democratic change across the Arab world, which led to the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Joint Government

“Abbas believes he can juggle a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas with his pre-existing commitments to security and West Bank economic development, yet the Middle East is messier and he will probably be forced to make a choice,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East. Congress will probably cut aid to the Palestinians because of Abbas’s alliance with Hamas, Makovsky said.

The accord, signed by leaders of Hamas, Fatah and 11 other Palestinian factions, calls for the establishment of a joint government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and elections within a year.

“We have turned the page from this black internal division,” Abbas said at the ceremony. “We may differ, and we often do, but we still arrived at a minimum level of understanding.”

Abbas has said that Hamas won’t be asked to recognize Israel because he will be directing foreign policy and the government will consist of “technocrats” who aren’t explicitly connected to one faction or another.

‘Pay Any Price’

Hamas hasn’t participated in peace talks with the Jewish state, which it refuses to recognize. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel. Fatah seeks a negotiated peace agreement with Israel leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who is on a European trip to meet with the leaders of the U.K. and France, said Israel wouldn’t negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.

“What happened today in Cairo is a tremendous blow for peace and a great victory for terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters traveling with him in London.

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said May 1 that his government will withhold tax revenue collected on behalf of the Palestinians until it is certain the funds won’t end up in the hands of Hamas.

Washington Meeting

Netanyahu will be in Washington, D.C., on May 20 to meet with U.S. president Barack Obama, the White House said in a statement.

The U.S. has said it might reconsider aid it gives to the Palestinians should the reconciliation lead to a unity government that flouts conditions for a peace agreement with Israel, including its right to exist.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the Palestinians need to ensure that implementation of the agreement “advances the prospects of peace, rather than undermines those prospects.” The U.S. is seeking more details on the accord, he said.

The Palestinian Authority is supposed to receive almost $600 million from the U.S. this year, according to the State Department. Hamas receives millions of dollars from Iran each year, according to Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar.

Paris Talks

Netanyahu met U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron for dinner last night and travels to Paris today for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy aimed at tempering European support for a Palestinian state that includes Hamas, the Israeli prime minister told reporters.

Cameron said before the meeting that the U.K. sees this as a “moment of opportunity” to push the peace process forward. Netanyahu called for “moral clarity and political clarity” in what he described as the “great struggle now under way between the forces of democracy and moderation and the forces of tyranny and terror” in the Middle East.

Fatah and Hamas reached an agreement on April 27 that paved the way for yesterday’s ceremony. In 2007, Hamas violently ousted forces loyal to Abbas from Gaza a year after winning parliamentary elections.

Peace negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu fell apart last year after Israel refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Abbas has said he will resume negotiations only when all building is halted.

Recognizing State

The unity agreement may be a step toward the Palestinian Authority seeking United Nations recognition of an independent state if negotiations with Israel, broken off last September, aren’t resumed.

“The need for reconciliation has become more urgent given that the Palestinian Authority has, in the eyes of the world, crossed the line in terms of statehood readiness,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told reporters in Ramallah.

France is considering recognition of a Palestinian state as “one of the options we are reflecting on with our European partners,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

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