Palestinians take step toward unity

February 6, 2012 - 10:35 PM
Mideast Qatar Palestinian Reconciliation

In this photo provided by by the Palestinian President's office, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Khaled Mashal, chief of the Islamic militant group Hamas, right, confer with Qatar's crown prince Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, center, during a reconciliation meeting in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. The main Palestinian political rivals took a major step Monday toward healing their bitter rift, agreeing that Abbas would head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the West Bank and Gaza. (AP Photo/Thaer Ghanaim, Palestinian President's Office)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — After months of wavering, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a decisive step Monday toward reconciliation with the Islamic militant group Hamas, a move Israel promptly warned would close the door to any future peace talks.

In a deal brokered by Qatar, Abbas will head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the Palestinian territories in the coming months. The agreement appeared to bring reconciliation — key to any statehood ambitions — within reach for the first time since the two sides set up rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007.

Monday's deal, signed in the Qatari capital of Doha by Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, put an end to recent efforts by the international community to revive long-stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Abbas appears to have concluded that he has a better chance of repairing relations with Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group, than reaching an agreement with Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu quickly condemned the Doha deal. "It's either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. You can't have them both," he said in a warning to Abbas, who has enjoyed broad international support.

In moving closer to Hamas, Abbas risks losing some of that backing and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid.

Qatar, awash with cash from vast oil and gas reserves, assured the Palestinians that it would help limit any political and financial damages, according to Palestinian officials close to the talks.

Whether the Palestinian Authority loses any of the roughly $1 billion in foreign aid it received each year may partly depend on the interim government's political platform and Hamas' willingness to stay in the background.

The new government is to be made up of politically independent experts, according to the Doha agreement. If headed by Abbas, devoid of Hamas members and run according to his political principles, it could try to make a case to be accepted by the West. Abbas aides said they were optimistic they could win international recognition.

The Quartet of international Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — has said it would deal with any Palestinian government that renounces violence, recognizes Israel and supports a negotiated peace deal. Abbas has embraced these principles, while Hamas rejects them.

Top Abbas aides Nabil Shaath and Azzam al-Ahmed said they are confident the new government will be based on the Quartet principles. In any case, they said, the interim government's focus will be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections, not to negotiate with Israel. Such elections won't be held in May, as initially envisioned, they said, but could take place several months later.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was seeking more information about what was agreed, and that reconciliation was an internal matter for Palestinians.

"What matters to us are the principles that guide a Palestinian government going forward, in order for them to be able to play a constructive role for peace and building an independent state," Nuland said.

"Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence," she said. "It must recognize the state of Israel. And it must accept the previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the road map. So those are our expectations."

Nuland declined to say if the Fatah-Hamas arrangement would advance or hurt peace talks with Israel. She also appeared hesitant to address Netanyahu's warning to Abbas that the Palestinians can have "peace with Hamas or peace with Israel."

"We maintain that both of these parties ought to stay committed to this process," Nuland told reporters.

The European Union offered qualified support Monday, saying it considers Palestinian reconciliation and elections as important steps toward Mideast peace. The EU, a major financial backer of Abbas' Palestinian Authority, "looks forward to continuing its support," provided the new government meets the Quartet demands, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Last year, Abbas and Mashaal struck a reconciliation deal that later became bogged down in disagreement over who would head an interim government. Hamas strongly opposed Abbas' initial choice of Salam Fayyad, the head of his Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad, an economist who is widely respected in the West, said Monday he welcomed the new deal even though it would cost him a job he has held since 2007.

The breakthrough came after two days of meetings between Abbas and Mashaal, hosted by Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. After the signing, Abbas said that "we promise our people to implement this agreement as soon as possible."

Mashaal also said he was serious "about healing the wounds ... to reunite our people on the foundation of a political partnership, in order to devote our effort to resisting the (Israeli) occupation."

Abbas and Hamas have had bitter ideological differences, with Abbas pursuing a deal with Israel and the violently anti-Israel Hamas dismissing such talks as a waste of time. The rift deepened with Hamas' 2007 takeover of Gaza, which left Abbas with only the West Bank.

However, some of those differences seem to have narrowed in recent months.

Abbas has lost faith in reaching a deal, at least with Netanyahu. Low-level Israeli-Palestinian border talks last month — an attempt by the international community to revive formal negotiations after more than three years of paralysis — only highlighted the vast gaps.

The Palestinians want the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, with minor border adjustments, for their state. Israel's outline of a border deal, presented last month, meant it wants to keep east Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank, not enough concessions to keep Abbas engaged.

Mashaal, meanwhile, has been prodding Hamas toward a more pragmatic stance that is closer to that of the group's parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, and has urged Hamas to moderate and reconcile with Abbas.

However, Mashaal represents Hamas in exile and appears to have had differences with the movement's more hardline leadership in Gaza, which stands to lose influence and jobs in a reconciliation deal. Some of the Gaza leaders have resisted Mashaal's push for unity and moving closer to the Brotherhood, Hamas officials have said privately.

It remains unclear how much resistance Mashaal will now face from the Gaza leaders of the movement. One of the biggest challenges of reconciliation — how to blend the two sides' separate security forces — remains unresolved.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, said he welcomed the agreement. Initial reports that a Hamas delegation from Gaza went to Doha were incorrect. The delegation headed to Cairo.

The agreement calls for rebuilding Gaza, which has been largely cut off from the world as part of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade imposed after the Hamas takeover. The blockade was eased in the past year, but not enough to revive the Gaza economy, including the vital construction industry, and many large-scale projects remain on hold.

Qatar is willing to spend as much as $10 billion to help repair the damage of the rift, including settling mutual grievances by supporters of Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement who at the height of tensions fought bloody street battles, the Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed-door meetings with reporters. The figure could not be confirmed independently.

Al-Ahmed and Shaath, the Abbas aides, said they expect the composition of the new government to be announced during a Feb. 18 meeting of Palestinian political factions in Cairo.

They said Abbas would set an election date 90 days after the Central Elections Commissions has updated voter records in Gaza, a process that could take several weeks. The initial reconciliation pact envisioned elections in May, but this is no longer realistic, the aides said. Shaath said he believes the voting could take place by July.

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Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. AP writers Bradley Klapper in Washington, Raf Casert in Brussels and Brian Murphy in Dubai also contributed.

(This version CORRECTS that a Hamas delegation from Gaza did not go to Doha)