Peace talks suspended over possibility Hamas will join Palestinian government


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Responding to a unity accord among Palestinian factions, the Israeli government said Thursday that it was suspending negotiations with the Palestinians, breaking off nine months of talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the talks were “suspended now,” because of pending moves by the Palestinians to establish a unity government that would be backed by the militant Islamist group Hamas as well as the more moderate Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli step came days before a deadline Tuesday for extending the talks.

After a meeting that lasted several hours, the Israeli security Cabinet issued a statement that said it had “unanimously decided that Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction.”

The statement warned of an unspecified “series of measures” in response to “unilateral Palestinian action,” suggesting Israel would take retaliatory steps if the Palestinians follow through on their unity pact.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry had reiterated his disappointment in the timing of the Palestinian reconciliation announcement in a phone call Thursday with Abbas.

Psaki, who for months has responded to questions about the viability of the peace talks with a pat line about both sides emphasizing their commitment, could not confirm that was still the case. She acknowledged that the Israeli move didn’t bode well for extending talks beyond the deadline, but she wouldn’t characterize the effort as dead and even lumped in the development with “ups and downs” seen throughout the process.

“Choices need to be made by both parties, and we’ll see what happens,” Psaki said. She was careful to avoid assigning blame for the breakdown, saying both sides have taken “unhelpful” steps throughout the talks.

On Wednesday, Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement to carry out a long-stalled reconciliation accord. The agreement provides for the establishment of a unity government composed of technocrats within five weeks, which would prepare for elections six months later.

Similar accords in recent years have failed to materialize, and it was unclear whether the latest agreement, announced with much fanfare in Gaza, would in fact produce a joint Fatah-Hamas government, ending a bitter split.

The two factions fought a brief civil war in the Gaza Strip in 2007 before Hamas seized power there, and they remain deeply divided over peace talks with Israel. Fatah, which is dominant in the West Bank, supports negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state in that territory, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, but Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and advocates armed action against the Israelis.

Palestinian officials have argued that the unity accord would boost Abbas’ standing in peace negotiations, providing him with the legitimacy to deliver on an accord with the Israelis.

But Israeli government leaders have condemned the reconciliation agreement, saying it put Abbas in league with bitter enemies of Israel and snuffed out prospects for a negotiated peace.

“Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said, according to the Cabinet statement, using Abbas’ nickname. “The agreement between Abu Mazen and Hamas was signed even as Israel is making efforts to advance the negotiations with the Palestinians. . . . Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”

The faltering talks were plunged into crisis early this month after Israel failed to carry out a promised release of Palestinian prisoners, and Abbas responded by applying for Palestinian membership in a series of international treaties and conventions. Israel had held back on the prisoner release, demanding that the Palestinians agree to extend the negotiations beyond Tuesday’s deadline.

The tit-for-tat moves led Kerry to cancel a planned trip to the region, and though meetings with an American envoy, Martin Indyk, have continued, the two sides remained far apart as they traded accusations of causing the talks to break down.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect reason that Israel might take retaliatory steps against the Palestinians.

Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Washington.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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