Palestinians signal willingness to continue peace talks

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported a statement by Taher al-Nunu, a media adviser for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on the possibility of the recognition of Israel by Hamas. Nunu did not directly comment on recognition and said any discussion about recognition would happen in the future as part of Hamas’s efforts to join the PLO and form a government. Nunu said Sunday that Hamas would not in fact recognize Israel. This version has been corrected.


Mahmoud Abbas, center, gives a speech to members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2014. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that he is willing to continue negotiations with Israel, speaking two days after Israel broke off the latest round of peace talks following the conclusion of a deal between Abbas’s moderate Fatah faction and the militant Islamist group Hamas to form a unity government.

Addressing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council in Ramallah, Abbas said that Israel is negotiating with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority as a whole and that “any government formed would comply with our national agreements . . . to recognize the State of Israel and renounce terror.”

Israeli officials, however, contend that including Hamas in a Palestinian government would make peace negotiations impossible. Israel holds Hamas responsible for almost daily rocket fire into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip that it rules, and Israel and the United States have labeled the group a terrorist organization. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy or talk directly to Israeli officials.

Taher al-Nunu, a media adviser for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, suggested in an interview Saturday that any move to recognize Israel would have to be discussed as part of Hamas’s efforts to join the PLO and form a government. On Sunday, he said his comments had been misunderstood, and that recognizing Israel was not an option for Hamas.

In the meantime, Nunu said, the agreement reached with Fatah on Wednesday focuses on services for the Palestinian people, not on external political issues. Abbas has been given five weeks to form a unity government based on conditions laid out in previous agreements and to set in motion plans for parliamentary and presidential reforms and elections.

The announcement of a pact between Islamist Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in West Bank led Israel to cancel a session of peace talks on Wednesday. (Reuters)

“Over the past two days, hope has become apparent, because we are almost back to becoming one,” Abbas said in his speech Saturday.

He said that although he could not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a demand made repeatedly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinians still want “to achieve our rights through negotiations.”

Abbas said he is willing to continue discussing ways to achieve peace under a nine-month-old U.S.-led initiative if Israel agrees to release a group of veteran Palestinian prisoners, freeze settlement-building and present him with a map showing the borders of a future Palestinian state.

After Abbas spoke, an Israeli official with knowledge of the negotiations said the Palestinian president had killed the peace process.

“While Israel is making sincere efforts to promote negotiations with the Palestinians, Abbas goes and makes a pact with Hamas, and then today he recycles the same conditions he already knows Israel cannot accept,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of lack of authorization to talk to the media.

“Israel has done everything it can to undermine the talks, including suspending its participation, but Abbas has shown he is still committed,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO’s executive committee.

She said Hamas’s presence in a unified Palestinian government would not have an impact on the talks.

“Israel is negotiating with the PLO and the president, and the PLO is negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people. Anyone who joins the PLO will be bound by its decisions,” she said.On Thursday, Netanyahu accused Abbas of renouncing peace to form an alliance with “a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.” He said the agreement between Fatah and Hamas proves that Abbas is not committed to advancing peace negotiations.

Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said Israel was right to suspend talks if Hamas is now involved, telling Israel’s Channel 2 news that while Abbas might see Hamas as a political entity, “for us, and for the entire world, it is a designated terror organization that does not recognize our existence, and acts against civilians through terror.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Israel was using the Fatah-Hamas agreement as another pretext for halting peace talks.

“Benjamin Netanyahu and his government used the split between the Palestinian factions as an excuse to reject a peace agreement in the past,” the Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying. “Today, they are using Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same thing.”

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has expressed disapproval of the reconciliation plan.

“We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities for peace,” Kerry said. “We believe it is the only way to go. But right now, obviously, it’s at a very difficult point, and the leaders themselves have to make decisions.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said she welcomed the possibility of a united Palestinian government and called on all sides to stay involved in peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has expressed disapproval of the reconciliation plan.

“We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities for peace,” Kerry said. “We believe it is the only way to go. But right now, obviously, it’s at a very difficult point, and the leaders themselves have to make decisions.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said she welcomed the possibility of a united Palestinian government and called on all sides to stay involved in peace talks.

Sufian Taha in Jerusalem and Islam Abdul-Karim in Gaza contributed to this report.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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