Israel pulls plug on peace talks over Palestinian unity agreement
Israel has formally suspended Middle East peace talks in retaliation for a unity pact between the Palestinian leadership and the Islamist Hamas movement, dealing a severe blow to US-brokered efforts to end the decades-old conflict.
The move appeared to sound the death knell to nine months of peace talks that were due to expire on April 29.
It followed a five-hour meeting of Benjamin Netanyau's security cabinet called to discuss Wednesday's pact, which Israel depicted as an effective rejection of peace negotiations because of Hamas's denial of its right to exist.
"The cabinet has unanimously decided that the Israeli government will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terror organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel," a statement issued by Mr Netanyahu's office said.
Mr Netanyahu said that Palestinian moves to form a unity government with Hamas were "a giant leap backwards" for the peace process.
US mediators had been scrambling to find a formula to extend the negotiations, which had already been plunged into crisis over Israel's refusal to release Palestinian prisoners, as previously agreed.
Wednesday's unity agreement – jointly announced in Gaza City by Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation – appeared to signal the end of seven years of conflict between the Islamist group and Fatah, the Western-backed movement headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president. It promised to form a new unity government in five weeks while pledging to hold fresh elections within six months.
Despite the tough stance, Mr Netanyahu left the door open to salvaging negotiations, which are set to expire next Tuesday.
"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 $100m 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's self-rule government afloat.
Mr Abbas won assurances in recent Arab League meetings that Arab countries would pay $100m (€72m) 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. The announcement heralded scenes of celebration in the streets of Gaza, which is run by Hamas – designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU.
But it triggered an angry response from Mr Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, who initially called a halt to Wednesday night's scheduled negotiating session before calling an emergency meeting of the security cabinet.
Ironically, Baroness Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief welcomed the Palestinian unity agreement yesterday before news of Israel's suspension of talks emerged.
"The European Union believes that the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is an important step toward a two-state solution," Michael Mann, Baroness Ashton's spokesman, said. "But the top priority remains the continuation of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians." (© Daily Telegraph, London)