For Washington, Palestinian pact not the end of Middle East peace hopes

WASHINGTON Sun Apr 27, 2014 7:28am EDT

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (L), head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (C) and senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq hold their hands after announcing a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City April 23, 2014. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (L), head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (C) and senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq hold their hands after announcing a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City April 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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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 reconciliation.

"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 Ukraine.

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.

NOW - OR 2021?

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 the Palestinians.

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)

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Comments (13)
TBellchambers wrote:
It is an unfortunate fact the the US president and the White House have been rendered impotent by the lobby-controlled Congress which is devastating for democratic government everywhere.

When a powerful, moneyed unelected minority acting for a foreign state can impose its political agenda upon the House of Representatives without any mandate from the people, it turns democratic government into an oligarchy run by an overseas government for its benefit as opposed to that of the American people. Such lobbying should be banned and all payments made by the lobby to politicians, likewise.

Apr 27, 2014 7:44am EDT  --  Report as abuse
kafantaris wrote:
Forget the contradictions. Life and nature are of them and we still make do.
ā€œIsrael and the Palestinians [can still] advance toward setting up two states for two peoples.ā€

Apr 27, 2014 9:04am EDT  --  Report as abuse
rgbviews wrote:
President Abbas is making all the right moves. He has positioned the State of Palestine on the legal and moral high ground:
He expresses sincere appreciation of the hard work of the US Administration in the last 9 months.
He tells the world that his unity government will continue to reject violence and continue to formally recognize the State of Israel.
He has committed the State of Palestine to several international conventions dealing with human rights.
Most recently he declares the Holocaust a most heinous crime against humanity.
He bases the Palestinian position on universally accepted principles of human rights and international law.

On the Israeli side things are not so good:
Senior officials openly criticize the hard work of John Kerry and AIPAC is seen as undermining the Administration in the US Congress.
Reports of IDF violence and use of unnecessary force continue.
Israel continues to it’s violations of international law and UN Resolutions.
Israel threatens violence against Iran while continuing its own covert nuclear weapons program.
The Israel government includes extremist factions equivalent, or worse, than Hamas.

Keep up the good work, Mr. Abbas!

Apr 27, 2014 9:19am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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