WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The unity pact
between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant group Hamas
dealt a sharp punch to U.S.-driven peace negotiations with Israel, but
the Americans insisted it was not a fatal blow to the struggling talks.
Washington was stunned by the deal announced on Wednesday between
Fatah, the faction that leads the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules
the Gaza Strip and is viewed as a terrorist organization by the
United States, the European Union and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu immediately suspended participation in the peace
process brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
But U.S. negotiators are not expected to give up on the process, in
which Kerry has invested thousands of hours and a great deal of
political capital. There is also little for Washington to lose by
monitoring developments, while pushing the two sides toward
"This will probably slow things down, but it will resume at some
point," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department
peace negotiator now at the Wilson Center in Washington.
"There is no need for the United States to walk away from this, and
it would be stupid, frankly," he said.
Washington is Israel's closest ally, and President Barack Obama has
already faced strong criticism at home and abroad over his handling
of foreign policy. Obama has been accused of neglect for Asia — where he has traveled this week — and weakness in Europe, where
Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula and is threatening eastern
Months of meetings since last summer have produced no sign of
progress in the talks, aimed at creating an independent Palestinian
state on land captured by Israel in a 1967 war. Palestinians want
East Jerusalem to be capital of the state they seek in the occupied
West Bank and Gaza Strip, and want Israeli soldiers and more than
half a million settlers gone.
Israeli settlement construction has been a major obstacle in the
negotiations. Citing security concerns and historic and Biblical
links to the territory, Israel says it intends to keep large
settlement blocs in any future peace deal.
Netanyahu has made recognition of his country as a Jewish state a
requirement for peace. The issue has lately overshadowed other
stumbling blocks over borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Palestinians fear the label would lead to discrimination against
Israel's sizeable Arab minority, while Israelis say it recognizes
Jewish history and rights on the land.
For the United States, giving up on achieving a peace deal would be
an unnecessary admission of foreign policy defeat, especially in the
Middle East, amid the Syrian civil war, upheaval in Egypt and
delicate nuclear talks with Iran.
"So far, no one has been eager to declare the patient dead," said
Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on
Palestine. "So far, everyone is talking about 'suspension,' but no
one is talking about 'collapse,' simply because no one wants to be
blamed for a collapse," he said.
If Obama were to walk away now it likely would be several years
before another U.S. president would throw much energy into Middle
East peace. Efforts to end the deep-seated conflict are not seen as
a winning issue, meaning that the next inhabitant of the White House
would probably not tackle Israel and the Palestinians until he or
she won a second four-year term — which would start in 2021.
Obama said on Friday the Palestinian move might mean that a "pause"
would be needed in the talks. Though he called it one of a series of
choices the two sides had made in recent weeks that had hurt chances
of achieving peace, Obama offered hope the two sides might overcome
their mutual mistrust.
The U.S. State Department said Kerry believes the peace effort is in
a holding pattern, and it is up to Israel and the Palestinians to
decide what to do next.
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center
for Middle East Policy and former adviser to the Palestinian
negotiating team, questioned why a Fatah-Hamas accord should by
definition be seen as a blow to the peace process.
Abbas has told Kerry the coalition with Hamas would renounce
violence and recognize the state of Israel. On Saturday Abbas again
signaled that he remains committed to the peace talks, saying that
any unity government agreed with Hamas would recognize Israel.
And a unity government — if the deal held — would mean that, after
years of division, a single entity was negotiating on behalf of all
Plus, Elgindy noted, bitter foes in negotiations elsewhere have been
willing to sit down together.
"If it's possible for the United States to talk to the Taliban and
even have fruitful negotiations with Iran, then obviously it's not
so insurmountable," he said.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Matt
Spetalnick in Seoul; editing by Frances Kerry)