RAMALLAH: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that the new unity government he is set to head with the backing of Hamas would reject violence and recognise Israel and existing agreements.
Israel, however, slammed his speech to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council as a “coup de grace” to the peace process. The PLO body had convened to chart a course of action after Israel suspended US-brokered peace talks in response to a reconciliation deal with the Islamist Hamas movement.
The agreement between the rival Palestinian factions came as the United States and Israel had hoped to extend the faltering peace talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Israel said it would not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, the armed Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip, which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state and has always rejected peace talks. “The upcoming government will obey my policy,” Abbas told the PLO council. “I recognise Israel and reject violence and terrorism, and recognise international commitments.”
He stressed that the new government itself would not be charged with negotiations, but rather the PLO which “represents the entire Palestinian people”. Efforts to extend hitherto fruitless talks hit a wall last month when Israel refused to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners.
The Palestinians retaliated by applying to adhere to 15 international treaties as Abbas listed conditions for extending the talks beyond the deadline.
He reiterated these conditions yesterday, saying Israel must freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, free the prisoners and begin discussing the borders of a promised Palestinian state.
Israel, which had already dismissed these same conditions, slammed his speech. He “recycled the same conditions, after he already knows Israel won’t accept them,” an Israeli government official said, charging that the Palestinian alliance came “while Israel was making sincere efforts to advance negotiations with the Palestinians”.
Israel and Western nations view Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abbas must choose between reconciling with the Islamist group and negotiating peace. A senior Hamas official in Gaza praised Abbas’s “mostly positive” speech, and concurred with the PLO position that the new government would not be involved in peace talks.
“It is not the government’s mission to take care of political issues,” Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas’s Gaza premier Ismail Haniya, said. “It has only three main missions: unifying the Palestinian organisations, preparing for elections and reconstructing Gaza,” he said.
The PLO is the internationally recognised representative of the Palestinians and their interlocutor in peace talks. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created as part of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s to administer the occupied Palestinian territories. Abbas heads both, as well as the secular Fatah party which dominates the PLO.
Under Wednesday’s PLO-Hamas accord, Abbas would head an “independent government” of technocrats, to be formed within five weeks. That new interim administration would be charged with holding parliamentary and presidential elections within six months of taking office.
Abbas reiterated that the Palestinians would never recognise Israel as the “Jewish state”, saying they recognised it as a state in 1993 and should not have to accept its religious identity, which has been a central Netanyahu’s demand. He noted that no similar demand was made of Egypt or Jordan when they signed peace treaties recognising Israel. And he said the Palestinians would refuse a state that did not have east Jerusalem as its capital.
Hamas’s Naim said the Abbas “speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on... not recognising (Israel as) the Jewish state”.
The dispute over recognition and Israel’s continuing construction of settlements in the occupied territories presented major obstacles to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged efforts to coax the two sides towards a historic peace agreement. “If they (Israel) don’t want to commit there is the other solution — for them to take over everything,” Abbas said, implying that a consequence of not renewing talks could be dismantling the PA.