- 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.

The U.S.-brokered negotiations broke down this month when Israel refused to carry out the last of four waves of prisoner releases unless it received assurances that the Palestinian leadership would continue the talks beyond April.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy welcomed the Fatah-Hamas deal. In a statement, he said he hoped the agreement would “support the Palestinian position in the peace talks” with Israel. In Qatar, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah congratulated the Hamas prime minister, a TV channel run by the group said.

Approval in the two influential Arab states, which have been at loggerheads over the wider role of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, implied that the agreement had regional support.

Iran gave no immediate reaction. The Shiite-dominated government in Tehran has long maintained an alliance with Hamas even though the organization is Sunni Muslim.

The overall reaction in Washington was that U.S. attempts to usher in Israeli-Palestinian peace were in jeopardy.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called on Mr. Abbas to “abandon this reckless course and recommit to direct talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and make the tough choices necessary for peace.”

“It is unclear how negotiators can agree to a long-term peace deal — or even extend the talks beyond April 29th — when one of the parties refuses to recognize the State of Israel or renounce the use of violence,” Ms. Lowey said in a statement.

Josh Block, who heads the Washington- and Jerusalem-based Israel Project, said in a statement that “by embracing a genocidal terrorist organization that according to its own charter explicitly exists to destroy Israel and slaughter Jews, the Palestinian Authority has … shown its true colors by turning its back on peace and reconciliation with Israel.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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