TEL AVIV // Israeli officials yesterday criticised a reconciliation deal between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, threatening to act against Palestinian leaders and warning the pact may doom peace talks.
The Israeli reaction appeared to be part of a campaign to garner international opposition to the pact, which some analysts said has spurred Israeli fears that a united front may strengthen the Palestinians' hand in future peace negotiations.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's ultra-nationalist foreign minister, claimed the agreement stemmed from a "huge panic" felt by both the Western-backed Fatah and the Islamic Hamas in the wake of the recent regional upheavals.
He added that Israel may implement punitive measures against the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in protest of the pact with Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation. Such measures, he said, include restricting the ability of officials such as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to freely move within the West Bank or outside, or withholding taxes that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, cautioned that the pact was a further obstacle to already suspended peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In a statement, he said: "The agreement between Fatah and the terror organisation Hamas is a fatal mistake that will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and will sabotage chances for peace and stability in the region."
Since the pact was announced by Fatah and Hamas on Wednesday, Israel has expressed concern that the deal may prompt Hamas to gain control over the West Bank as hundreds of its activists are expected to be released from Palestinian Authority jails in the Israeli-occupied territory.
Hamas already rules the Gaza Strip, from which it violently routed Fatah forces in 2007, deepening tensions that had been stirred a year earlier when it surprisingly emerged victorious in the Palestinian elections. Fatah dominates the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway over the West Bank and enjoys the backing of the international community.
Israeli leaders have tried to portray the agreement as a stumbling block to peace negotiations, which were suspended in September shortly after they began because Israel refused to extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.
Late on Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, appeared to give Mr Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, an ultimatum, saying in a statement: "The Palestinian Authority must choose either between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas."
But some analysts said that Mr Netanyahu, who has previously claimed the lack of Palestinian unity makes it impossible to reach a peace deal, is now looking for an excuse not to restart negotiations in a bid to avoid losing the support of the growing Israeli Right, many of whose members oppose Palestinian statehood.
"Israel wants to keep the Palestinians divided because the continuation of the internal Palestinian rift has portrayed the ugly face of the Palestinians in dealing with each other," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University. "Now, Hamas and Fatah will make a bigger effort in protesting against the Israeli occupation and settlements instead of fighting each other."
Mr Abusada said that while the Palestinian deal clouds prospects for peace negotiations, it may boost the Palestinian Authority's campaign to persuade the United Nations to recognise Palestinian statehood in September without first reaching an accord with Israel.
He added: "The Palestinians will be united and will speak with one voice and that would make it easier for them to gain the international community's support."
Despite speculation that the agreement may dim chances for a renewal of peace talks, Mr Abbas yesterday sounded optimistic about negotiations, in a possible bid to avoid losing the West's diplomatic and financial backing after the pact.
Mr Abbas said that the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which includes most Palestinian factions and which he heads, will still be responsible for conducting negotiations with Israel and that Hamas is not part of the umbrella group.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority faces a challenge in persuading its allies abroad to support the pact as Israel is expected to step up a diplomatic campaign to draw international opposition to it.
Yesterday, the European Union, which together with its member states is the largest supplier of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, said it was studying the agreement. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said in a statement that she would discuss it with other European leaders. She added: "The EU has consistently called for peace and reconciliation, under the authority of President Abbas, leading to an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza and in support of greater stability and security in the region."