NYT: Israel appears to raise new peace talks issue with U.S.

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JERUSALEM — Days after suspending American-brokered Middle East peace talks because of a reconciliation pact reached between the Palestine Liberation Organization and its rival Hamas, the Islamic militant group, Israel on Monday raised a new source of potential tension with the United States over Washington’s approach to the unity government planned by the Palestinians.

Israel has stated that it will not resume negotiations with any Palestinian government that is supported by Hamas, even if that government is made up of political independents and apolitical technocratic figures who meet international conditions for acceptance. An Israeli official said on Monday that Israel had in the past received “a specific commitment from the American administration” backing that position — a claim that appeared to be at odds with some more recent signals from Washington.

A senior State Department official said Monday that the administration was “not going to reveal the details of private conversations.”

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The Israeli official, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s diplomatic delicacy, said that the commitment had been given to Israel during President Obama’s first term in office and that it had been restated since his re-election. The official would not specify whether the commitment had been given in writing or by the president himself.

But he insisted that the Obama administration had backed Israel’s position against negotiating or dealing with such a unity government unless Hamas accepted the principles laid down by world powers after the Islamic group won Palestinian elections in 2006: to recognize Israel’s right to exist, to renounce all violence and to accept all previous signed agreements.

Hamas continues to refuse those conditions. Taher al-Nounou, an adviser to Ismail Haniya, the group’s prime minister in Gaza, reiterated on Sunday that Hamas would not recognize Israel.

In the absence of such recognition, Washington, like Israel, has classified Hamas as a terrorist group and forbids direct dealings with it.

But since the Palestinian factions announced the agreement to heal their schism last Wednesday, including plans to form a unity government of technocrats within five weeks and to hold elections six months later, the American administration’s position toward a unity government has appeared less clear-cut.

In an initial reaction last week, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, called the Palestinian move “disappointing” and the timing “troubling,” coming days before the April 29 expiration date for the American-brokered peace talks that have been a focus of Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenure, and as the negotiators worked feverishly on a formula to try to extend them.

Ms. Psaki said that “any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” without making any mention of Hamas. She added, “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”

Later, when asked whether the demand was for Hamas to change its long-held positions, Ms. Psaki said that if President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority “were to continue to pursue reconciliation, Hamas would need to abide by these principles in order to be a part of the government.”

“So if it’s a unified government, yes, they would need to abide by these principles,” she said. But her statement did not appear to address Israel’s concerns about a unity government in which Hamas did not play a direct part.

The reconciliation deal is meant to heal a political and geographical rift between President Abbas, whose administration is based in the West Bank, and Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007. Mr. Abbas, who is also the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the mainstream Fatah party that dominates it, has reached several unity accords with Hamas in recent years, including plans for a transitional unity government and elections, but the agreements never succeeded.

This latest deal, which appeared to have more substance, took Israelis and officials in Washington by surprise. There is no certainty that it will turn out to be any different from the failed accords that preceded it, possibly contributing to the cloudiness in the American position.

“The odds are against the formation of this technocratic government,” one American official said recently, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have seen this movie four times before.”

The Israeli government suspended the American-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians a day after the unity pact was announced. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said, “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”

Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, reiterated that Israel would not deal with a Palestinian unity government so long as Hamas did not accept the international principles.

“We are not overwhelmed by a group of gentlemen wearing suits while in the back room the real control is with Fatah and Hamas,” Mr. Gold said in a recent interview. “The technocrats will be under the clear direction of the two movements,” he added.

Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the P.L.O., said in an interview on Monday that throughout the negotiations the Israelis constantly asked the Palestinians how they would deal with Gaza. Mr. Erekat said he told the Israelis: “You are right. We should have one authority, one gun and one rule of law. So in accordance with Abbas’s program we go forward with reconciliation. Then they say no, you have chosen Hamas and not peace.”

Israel’s decision to suspend the negotiations, Mr. Erekat said, was “the most shortsighted decision” Israel could have taken.

Although Israel’s negotiating partner has been the P.L.O. and not the government of the Palestinian Authority, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of economy and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, described such distinctions as “intellectual somersaults.”

“Abbas is the president of the Palestinian Authority,” he told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday. “The world recognizes him as such. Now the government will include Hamas, and we will not speak to it.”

He added: “This is precisely the point where we expect the world to show more clarity and to do the right thing. Asking us to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas is like asking the United States to negotiate with a government backed by Al Qaeda, even if that government said it recognized the United States. Would anyone ever consider that?”

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