x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israeli leadership divided on Palestinian reconciliation pact

Israeli foreign ministry reported to say deal between Hamas and Fatah should be regarded in positive light, while Benjamin Netanyahu insists it represents a blow to the already suspended peace process.

TEL AVIV //A secret Israeli document revealed in a media report yesterday indicated there was a deep disagreement in the Israeli government on how to approach the Palestinian reconciliation pact, with the prime minister opposing the deal and senior diplomats supporting it.

The report, published by the newspaper Haaretz, cited unidentified career diplomats at the foreign ministry's policy planning department as stating that the agreement between the secular Fatah movement and the Islamic Hamas group should be viewed in a positive light.

Such a position runs counter to the strong opposition of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and is likely to weaken his drive to lobby Western countries to reject the pact by claiming it represents a blow to the already suspended peace process.

Mr Netanyahu's office did not respond yesterday to the report. The prime minister is due to hold talks with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris today after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, and Israeli media reported that the Fatah-Hamas pact is high on his agenda.

In London yesterday, before the meeting, Mr Netanyahu told reporters a reconciliation deal is "a tremendous blow to peace". The Israeli prime minister, however, is unlikely to have an easy time convincing European leaders not to back the long-sought unity deal that resolves a deep division in the Palestinian movement.

On Monday, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said during a visit to Cairo that his country welcomed the agreement. He added: "Of course, lots of details will have to be worked out and we will have to judge everyone by their actions and intentions. We will continue to work closely on this."

Fatah, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and its rival Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, signed their surprise agreement in Cairo yesterday. The deal envisages the joint formation of an interim government and elections later this year.

Israeli officials have been infuriated by the accord because Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organisation and fears the group may try to take over the West Bank. Israel has also expressed outrage that Hamas praised Osama bin Laden this week as a "holy warrior" after the US announced that it had killed him.

While Hamas calls for Israel's destruction in its founding charter, it has repeatedly offered Israel a long-term truce in return for the creation of a Palestinian state.

The confidential foreign ministry document urges Israel to "be careful in its policy and declarations", suggesting criticism that Mr Netanyahu may have voiced his opposition to the deal before consulting top diplomats.

"We must avoid expressions or moves that will weaken Israel against the Palestinians in the international arena, especially in view of the strategic challenges that are expected during the year," the report added. It was an apparent reference to the Palestinian bid to draw the United Nations' recognition of their statehood in September without first reaching a peace pact with Israel.

The memo also recommended that the government take a positive approach towards the pact in a bid to spur Hamas to recognise the Jewish state. Such an approach, it said, could also improve relations with the administration of US President Barack Obama, who has expressed disappointment over the US's failed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

"The Palestinian move is not only a security threat but also a strategic opportunity to create genuine change in the Palestinian context," Haaretz quoted the report as saying. "Such change may serve the long-term interests of Israel."

The government, the document said, should adopt a "constructive approach that would sharpen the dilemma on the Palestinian side" over Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel.

It also urged the government to be a "team player" and coordinate its response to the Palestinian pact with the US, and added: "This will empower the US and serve Israeli interests."

The newspaper reported that Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, was given the report this week. The recommendations in the document contradicted a threat made by Mr Lieberman last week that Israel would take punitive measures against the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Instead, the report said, Israel should boost its security coordination with the Palestinian Authority - a partnership that has so far prompted a "dramatic" drop in violence. It should also ask the international community to set detailed criteria for the new Palestinian government.

Israel's efforts to pressure Fatah to cancel the deal unless Hamas changes its founding charter appear to be making little progress. Yesterday, Nabil Shaath, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, was quoted on Israeli radio as saying that the international bids to force Hamas to recognise Israel are "unworkable and do not make sense".

Mr Shaath was referring to the demands by the Middle East Quartet - the US, United Nations, European Union and Russia - that Hamas will renounce violence and recognise Israel as a precondition for any peace deal. Mr Shaath said that the only demands Hamas should fulfil are to reject launching attacks and to be committed to the peace process.