- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

U.S. and Israeli officials slammed the unity agreement announced Wednesday by rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, saying it would strain whatever thread of hope was left in the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process that Secretary of State John F. Kerry has sought to foster over the past nine months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the deal meant the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority was effectively turning its back on the peace process in favor of aligning with a “murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”

In Washington, where Hamas has been on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list since 1997, officials said the development was “troubling.” It also was a blow to Mr. Kerry’s push for peace, an effort that all but collapsed this month under heavy disagreements.

“The timing was troubling, and we were certainly disappointed,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters. “The secretary and we all understand it’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”

Despite that antipathy, Hamas and Fatah leaders hailed their reconciliation as a historic development that could bring divided Palestinian territories under unified rule for the first time in nearly a decade.

Officials close to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and high-level Fatah member Azzam al-Ahmad, who represents Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said a unity government will come under deeper discussion in the weeks ahead and elections across the Palestinian territories could be held by early next year.

In attempting to isolate Hamas over the years, U.S. leaders have worked through the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by the Fatah movement. Israel has embraced a similar position, partaking in the U.S.-brokered peace talks during recent months with Palestinian Authority representatives while keeping a suspicious eye on Hamas.

The State Department said Mr. Kerry personally discussed the ramifications of Wednesday’s development in a phone call with Mr. Netanyahu but had not spoken directly with Mr. Abbas.

With such factors as a backdrop, big questions still loomed over the Fatah-Hamas deal. Mr. Abbas, for instance, did not personally comment on the development. Also, it was not immediately clear how the two sides would determine who ends up in charge of security over the divided Palestinian territories.

Gaza is controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank is under Mr. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority rule.

Tension over the security issue has been burning since 2006, when Hamas won a surprise majority in the Palestinian parliament. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority responded by agreeing to a coalition government with Hamas, with Mr. Abbas retaining the Palestinian presidency and Mr. Haniyeh becoming prime minister.

A year later, the situation devolved into violence when Mr. Abbas dissolved the government and Hamas militants seized control of Gaza.

Many Palestinians have longed for reconciliation. But since 2011, Hamas and Fatah have failed to implement an Egyptian-brokered unity deal because of disputes over power sharing.

They also have not agreed on resolving the conflict with Israel. Hamas has carried on its battle with Israel, while Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority have pursued years of fruitless peace talks.

Some observers say regional developments might have set the stage for a lasting deal between Fatah and Hamas. Gaza correspondent Rushdi Abu Alouf noted on the BBC website that Hamas has lost a strong ally in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and a key base of operations in war-torn Syria. Fatah, Mr. Alouf wrote, might be simply looking to strengthen its negotiating position against Israel.

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