x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Palestinians to consider ‘all options’ as Israel ends talks

Israel broke off negotiations and brought the US-brokered process to the brink of collapse on Thursday, protesting against a reconciliation agreement between the western-backed Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas group.

RAMALLAH // The Palestinians are considering “all options” in response to Israel’s decision to halt peace talks and punish the Palestinian Authority over its unity deal with Hamas.

Israel broke off negotiations and brought the US-brokered process to the brink of collapse on Thursday, protesting against a reconciliation agreement between the western-backed Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas group.

“The Palestinian leadership will look into all options to respond to Israeli government decisions against the PA,” the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said on Thursday.

“The priority now for the Palestinians is reconciliation and national unity,” he added.

Israel’s Security Cabinet made the decision to end talks during a marathon emergency meeting convened to discuss the new Palestinian deal. The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah announced the reconciliation plan on Wednesday, meant to end a seven-year rift.

But Israel objects to any participation in Palestinian politics by Hamas.

On Wednesday, the Palestine Liberation Organisation — internationally recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people — and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, signed a reconciliation agreement.

Under the agreement, which came as the US-brokered peace talks were at a standstill, the sides agreed to form a “national consensus” government under Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank, within weeks.

Israel said it would not negotiate “with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas” and vowed “measures” in response to the move, but did not specify what they might be.

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at Mr Abbas on Thursday, saying that instead of choosing peace, he “made a pact with a murderous terror organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel.”

But Mr Erakat put the blame for the failure of peace talks on Israel.

“Netanyahu’s government has been asked for years to choose between peace and settlements and it chose settlements,” he said.

The Palestinian unity deal came as the US was making last-ditch efforts to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.

Despite the tough stance, Mr Netanyahu left the door open to salvaging negotiations.

“He still has the opportunity to reverse course, to go to the right direction, to abandon this pact with Hamas,” Mr Netanyahu said. “I hope he does it. Because if we encounter a Palestinian leadership and a Palestinian government that is ready to pursue genuine peace negotiations, we’re going to be there.”

Israel transfers about US$100 million (Dh367m) in tax and customs money to the Palestinians each month. It has withheld these funds in the past as a punitive measure, money needed to keep Mr Abbas’ self-rule government afloat.

Mr Abbas won assurances in recent Arab League meetings that Arab countries would pay $100m to the Palestinian Authority if Israel freezes the transfers. However, some of the Arab donor countries have in the past not met their aid commitments.

There was no immediate US reaction. But for US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Israeli decision was the latest — and perhaps final — blow to the peace efforts he has led for the past nine months.

With great expectations, KMr erry persuaded the sides to resume peace talks last July after a nearly five-year break.

Initially, he hoped to forge a comprehensive peace deal ending decades of conflict. But after months of fruitless efforts, Mr Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would seek a preliminary “framework” agreement by April, with the goal of extending talks to hammer out the final details.

Despite more than 10 visits to the region, and numerous phone calls with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mr Kerry had to abandon even that more modest goal for simply seeking a way to extend talks.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press