Israel said on Thursday it was halting negotiations with the Palestinians following their unity deal with the Hamas rulers of Gaza, as faltering U.S.-backed peace talks approached their deadline.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the agreement between the rival factions as a move that “kills peace,” but senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat blamed the demise of the process on Israeli settlement activity.
On Wednesday, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people — and the Gaza Strip’s Islamist Hamas rulers signed a reconciliation agreement.
Under the deal, they agreed to form a “national consensus” government under Abbas within weeks.
Israel’s security cabinet announced in response on Thursday that it would “not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” and vowed “measures” in response but without elaborating.
Any new measures would follow a raft of financial sanctions unveiled this month when the Palestinians applied to join 15 international treaties.
“The pact with Hamas kills peace,” Netanyahu told NBC television shortly after the Israeli cabinet decision.
The Palestinian unity deal came as Washington made last-ditch efforts to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Netanyahu said it was signed “while Israel was making efforts to advance the negotiations with the Palestinians” and was “a direct continuation of the Palestinian recalcitrance to promote negotiations.”
But Erakat told Agence France Presse: “Netanyahu’s government has been asked for years to choose between peace and settlements and it chose settlements.”
He said the Palestinian leadership would “look into all options to respond to Israeli government decisions against the PA.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said in a statement the league “fully supports Palestinian president Abbas in facing all the pressures applied on him by Israel.”
The Palestinian deal came with the U.S.-led peace process already on the brink of collapse.
U.S. envoy Martin Indyk has repeatedly met both sides to try to salvage the negotiations, and was to meet Abbas in Ramallah later Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also set to talk to Abbas by phone after Washington said it was “disappointed” by the Palestinian deal.
In Ramallah, Abbas was due to begin consultations on forming a “national consensus government” of independent members that he would head.
Abbas says he will not extend the negotiations unless Israel agrees to freeze all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, and frees a group of Arab prisoners who had been earmarked for release this month.
He has also demanded that the two sides begin immediate negotiations on the future borders of the Palestinians’ promised state.
Israel has dismissed all three conditions as unacceptable.
Jibril Rajub, a Fatah leader, told AFP that “the next national consensus government will proclaim loud and clear that it accepts the Quartet’s conditions.”
The Middle East Quartet demands that Hamas recognize Israel and existing agreements between it and the PLO, and renounce armed struggle.
Washington warned Wednesday that the Palestinian unity deal threatened to scupper any chance of rescuing the talks.
“It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Abbas’ writ has effectively been confined to autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Hamas evicted his loyalists from Gaza in 2007.
Hamas agreed to the formation of a joint administration under his leadership within five weeks.
Similar past agreements have been reached but not implemented.
On Thursday, the PLO delegation to Gaza briefed Palestinian factions on the deal.
When Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the European Union and the United States said they would deal with a government in which it participated only if it renounced violence and recognized Israel and past peace deals.
Meanwhile in Gaza, Palestinian militants detonated an explosive device along the border fence, Israel’s military said, adding: “Forces at the scene responded towards suspicious targets.”
Earlier on Thursday, Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh called Qatari, Tunisian and Turkish leaders to fill them in on the unity deal, said the Hamas-run al-Rai news agency.