Palestinian Unity Deal Not End to Peace, Official Says

A top Palestinian official sought to reassure critics that a reconciliation deal with the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers doesn’t mean Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is backing away from peace efforts.

The pact announced yesterday, meant to end a seven-year rift that produced dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza, complicates peacemaking by bringing Hamas into the mix. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, speaking to Israel Radio today, accused Abbas of embracing Hamas to avoid peacemaking and accused him of dealing in “political terror.”

Jibril Rajoub, a leading official in the Palestinian president’s Fatah movement, said once a unity government is formed, Abbas will declare that it recognizes Israel and accepts other conditions the U.S. and Europe have demanded in exchange for dealing with Hamas. “There is nothing to worry about,” Rajoub said today on Israel’s Army Radio.

The deal -- the third of its kind since 2011 -- was reached shortly after months of U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestinian Authority foundered at a critical juncture. The sides agreed in July to nine months of talks expiring April 29, and U.S. efforts to extend them have failed so far.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the unity deal with Hamas, which doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, will “seriously complicate” attempts to maintain negotiations. Any Palestinian government “must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” Psaki said.

No Recognition

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, hasn’t accepted any of those conditions in the past.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of choosing Hamas over peace and canceled a scheduled meeting of Israel and Palestinian negotiators yesterday. He’ll convene senior cabinet ministers today in Jerusalem to discuss an Israeli response to the unity deal, his spokesman Mark Regev said.

Israel’s benchmark TA-25 Index and shekel were little changed in trading today as investors waited to see how the reconciliation agreement plays out.

“We don’t see any impact at the the moment,” Sagie Poznerson, head of trading at Ramat Gan, Israel-based Leader Capital Markets, said by phone today. “Investors are waiting to see which way the wind will blow.”

‘Negotiating Tactic’

While Israel condemned the pact, that’s probably not what will kill the peace talks, said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine.

“It’s a negotiating tactic that says to Israel, ‘Hey, we have other options,’” he said. “At the same time, look at what happened to all the previous unity agreements with Hamas. They didn’t last.”

Under the terms of the deal, Fatah and Hamas will form a joint government within five weeks and hold elections within six months, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said yesterday in Gaza, where reconciliation talks were held.

A Fatah-Hamas unity administration formed in 2006 collapsed a year later after a violent clash between their forces in Gaza, leaving Abbas controlling the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza. Reunification efforts since that time have failed because of disputes over details and implementation.

‘Palestinians’ Court’

The U.S. negotiating team in Israel, led by envoy Martin Indyk, raised U.S. concerns with Abbas, Psaki said. She said “the ball at this point is in the Palestinians’ court” to address the implications of the Hamas deal for the peace process.

U.S. law requires cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority in the event of a power-sharing government that includes Hamas as a member, or results from an agreement with Hamas over which it exercises “undue influence.” Aid could continue only if the U.S. president certifies that all Palestinian ministers have accepted those principles.

It’s unclear whether a consensus government of the type anticipated under previous Fatah-Hamas agreements would come under that legal definition, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

The U.S. is expected to provided $440 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority this year, according to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an.

Two-State Solution

Abbas said the agreement with Hamas “will enhance the ability of Palestinian negotiators to achieve the two-state solution,” according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa. Netanyahu said Abbas “chose Hamas” and “whoever chooses Hamas doesn’t want peace.”

Talks broke down in early April after Israel didn’t go through with the last of four promised releases of Palestinian prisoners, then announced plans to build new homes in east Jerusalem, land the Palestinians claim for a future capital. Abbas retaliated by resuming the Palestinian campaign for greater statehood recognition outside negotiations.

If Hamas does join a Palestinian unity government, “they would probably allow Abbas to continue talking to Israel while insisting, as they have in the past, that any agreements require approval from the Palestinian public in a referendum,” said Mark Heller, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“In any case, there are no signs we’re close to a peace agreement, and adding Hamas to the mix just puts it a few more steps away,” Heller said.

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