OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON: Israel Thursday suspended U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians in response to President Mahmoud Abbas’ unexpected unity pact with Hamas.
The negotiations had appeared to be heading nowhere even before Wednesday’s reconciliation agreement plunged them deeper into crisis. The United States had been struggling to extend the talks beyond an original April 29 deadline for a peace accord.
“The government of Israel will not hold negotiations with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas, a terror organization that calls for Israel’s destruction,” an official statement said after a six-hour meeting.
Asked to clarify whether that meant the talks were now frozen or would be called off only after a unity government was formed, a senior Israeli official said: “They are currently suspended.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the two sides to make the compromises needed to forge ahead with peace talks, admitting the negotiations had reached “a difficult point.”
“There’s always a way forward, but the leaders have to make the compromises to do that. We may see a way forward, but if they’re not willing to make the compromises necessary it becomes very elusive,” Kerry told reporters in Washington hours after the Israeli announcement. “It’s up to them.”
A U.S. official said his government would have to reconsider its assistance to Abbas’ aid-dependent Palestinian Authority if the two leading Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, formed a government.
But U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry offered support for the Palestinian agreement after meeting Abbas, saying in a statement it was “the only way to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under one legitimate Palestinian Authority.”
The deal envisions a unity government within five weeks and elections six months later. Palestinian divisions widened after Hamas, which won the last general ballot in 2006, seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007.
In an interview with MSNBC after the security cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to leave open a window for future talks if Abbas reversed course or reconciliation with Hamas, seen by the West as a terrorist group, fell through.
“I hope [Abbas] changes his mind,” Netanyahu said. “I will be there in the future if we have a partner that is committed to peace. Right now we have a partner that has just joined another partner committed to our destruction. No-go.”Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni said she hoped a way could be found to return to talks. “The door was not closed today,” she told Israel’s Channel 2 television.
Wasel Abu Yousef, a top Palestine Liberation Organization official, rejected what he called “Israeli and American threats” and said a unity government would be comprised of technocrats.
But Netanyahu dismissed any notion that Hamas would not be the real power behind the bureaucrats.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, championed by Kerry, began in July amid strong public skepticism in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The next immediate steps stemming from the collapse of the talks seemed likely to be Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority.
Asked whether the new reconciliation moves would incur promised U.S. sanctions, PLO Deputy Secretary Yasser Abed Rabo told Palestinian radio it was too soon to penalize a government that had yet to be formed.
“There’s no need for the Americans to get ahead of themselves over this. What happened in Gaza in the last two days is just a first step which we welcome and want to reinforce,” he said.