Israel warned it would hold Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “accountable” for Hamas terrorism as the reconciliation agreement between that group and Fatah moved a step closer toward implementation on Thursday.
“He [Abbas] will be accountable for and responsible for [Hamas]’s violence against Israel,” an official in Jerusalem said.
Abbas asked Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to form and head a Palestinian unity government. It’s a move that strengthens the possibility that the two groups might really reconcile for the first time since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007.
Still, differences between Fatah and Hamas led to the postponement on Thursday of the anticipated announcement that the new government had actually been formed.
Israel suspended talks with the Palestinians when the Fatah-Hamas unity deal was announced and refused to negotiate with Hamas, which it calls a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction.
A Palestinian source in Ramallah said the new unity government could be announced next week.
Such an announcement would doom whatever fragile hope remains to resume the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government refuses to negotiate with Hamas.
On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama omitted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a major policy address he delivered in Annapolis, leading to speculation that the US was pulling out of the peace process after an intense period of involvement.
On Thursday, WAFA, the official Palestinian News Agency, said Obama had sent a letter to Abbas in which he stated his commitment to a negotiated peace process.
“As I emphasized during our meeting, the United States remains deeply committed to a negotiated outcome between Palestinians and Israelis that results in an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside the state of Israel,” Obama wrote.
“I am hopeful we can continue to work closely together to achieve this goal and further strengthen the bonds between our two people,” the letter said.
Netanyahu’s government had suspended talks with the Palestinians to protest Fatah’s decision to unify with Hamas, a group that has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence against it.
Still President Shimon Peres plans to meet Abbas at the Vatican on June 8, after Pope Francis used his trip to the Holy Land earlier this week to invite both leaders to join him there to pray for peace.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Thursday that the two had accepted that the meeting would take place on a Sunday afternoon.
That morning the pope will be presiding at a Pentecost Sunday service in St. Peter’s Square.
Francis told reporters on the plane returning to Rome from Israel, that he was not getting directly involved in the stalled Middle East peace process, something he said would be “crazy on my part.”
But, he said he hoped the prayer meeting, which comes after flailing diplomatic efforts to end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, would help create an atmosphere that would assist the eventual resumption of talks.
“Courage is needed to do this and I am praying to the Lord very much so that these two leaders, these two governments, have the courage to move forward. This is the only path for peace,” Francis said on the plane.
But an Israeli official warned that such talks would not be possible if the Fatah-Hamas unity pact is cemented.
“Israel is concerned that Hamas will use this pact with the PA to strengthen its presence in the West Bank and in so doing, become a graver threat to Israel and the future stability of the Palestinian authority,” the official said.
It said it planned to hold Abbas accountable for Hamas’s actions.
“If after this marriage is consummated, there is fire from Gaza into Israel, Abbas will have to understand that the government of Israel will be fully entitled to hold him and his Palestinian Authority accountable for such attacks,” the official said.
On Thursday, representatives of the two rival parties held discussions and consultations in a bid to remove the obstacles facing the proposed unity government.
The two sides have yet to reach agreement on the foreign affairs and interior portfolios in the unity government, the source added.
Moreover, Abbas’s insistence on keeping Minister for Religious Affairs Mahmoud Habbash in the government has prevented the two sides from reaching agreement on the make-up of the government.
Abbas’s decision to entrust Hamdallah with the task of forming a unity government is seen as a way to avoid the crisis with Hamas over the line-up.
In Gaza City, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the reconciliation with Fatah would not become an alternative to “resistance” against Israel.
Haniyeh said the deal would allow Hamas to hold on to its weapons “and defend the unity of our people in the face of occupation.”
Haniyeh told reporters that the “resistance that liberated the Gaza Strip is also capable of liberating the West Bank, Jerusalem and the rest of our land.”
Reuters contributed to this report.