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Palestinians: Peace Talks Can Continue, Despite Unity Deal

FILE - Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad meet in Gaza for talks aimed at reaching a reconciliation agreement between the two rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah on April 22, 2014.

FILE - Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad meet in Gaza for talks aimed at reaching a reconciliation agreement between the two rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah on April 22, 2014.

Palestinian leaders are insisting stalled peace talks with Israel can move forward, arguing a unity pact between Fatah and Hamas is no obstacle to the negotiations.

The two Palestinian factions last month agreed to form a power-sharing government, ending a bitter seven-year split that divided leadership between the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by formally ending the U.S.-mediated talks, saying he would not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. view as a terrorist group.

Unlike the West Bank-based Fatah, the Gaza-based Hamas Islamist group does not recognize Israel. It is committed to armed resistance against the Jewish state and regularly sends rockets across the border.

But in interviews with VOA, spokespersons and officials from both sides of the Palestinian political establishment agreed that the talks could continue, even with Hamas' presence.

Unity government to 'recognize past agreements'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says the unity deal should not necessitate the end of the talks. Last month, he promised a unity government will comply with past agreements, including renouncing violence and recognizing the state of Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, which has been holding the talks with Israel.

"It's not Hamas who decides the national agenda. It's the PLO. And the PLO has made this commitment, we have agreed to a two-state solution, to international law, to a negotiated settlement, non-violent resistance, all these things,"

Ashrawi tells VOA a unified Palestinian government would make it easier to create a lasting peace deal that could be enforced in both the West Bank and Gaza, an issue that was seemingly left unaddressed by the now stalled peace talks.

"It's in the interest of peace. It's in the interest of having binding agreements, of having commitments that all the Palestinians agree to rather than part of the Palestinians, and it empowers the Palestinians to implement anything we sign on to," she says.

Israel: unity deal a 'nail in the coffin'

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, disagrees. He tells VOA that by signing the unity agreement with Hamas, Mr. Abbas has "put a nail in the coffin" of the peace process.

"You can't tell the Israeli public that you want peace and reconciliation if you forge an alliance with the most violent enemies of peace. This is a radical, extremist organization that says the Jewish state has no right to exist in any form, that says any Israeli man, woman and child is a legitimate target for a terror attack," he says.

Regev insists until that happens, or unless Mr. Abbas annuls the pact with Hamas, Israel has no choice but to continue saying no to the talks.

"If Hamas were to change its positions, if it were to accept the three Quartet benchmarks - recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce terrorism, and accept the UN resolutions - that would be a different ballgame. Unfortunately, Hamas is stuck in this very extreme position," he says.

Hamas: peace talks 'none of our business'

Senior Hamas leaders have in the past said they are open to a two-state solution, if Israel withdraws from Palestinian territory it conquered in 1967. But despite its willingness to join a coalition with Fatah, Hamas has given no recent sign it is open to talks with Israel.

Hamas spokeswoman Israa al-Modallal told VOA that "Hamas will never ever recognize Israel because Israel does not recognize Hamas or the people's rights."

But she says if the PLO, which does not include Hamas, decides to continue the negotiations, that is "none of our business," saying it is not necessary for all members of the government to have the same opinion.

"In one of (Senior Hamas leader Ismail) Haniyeh's speeches, he was very clear that whoever wants to move on with negotiations, that is his business, and whoever wants to believe in resistance and move on with resistance, it's our business. We are not talking about negotiations or resistance. We are only talking about political sharing of the government itself. This is why we have to do this reconciliation. It's all about inside issues," says al-Modallal.

Outcome unclear

It is far from certain that Fatah and Hamas will be able to succeed in forming a government. Attempts to heal the division failed in both 2011 and 2012, and experts warn that both sides have a fundamentally different outlook on relations with Israel. Ashrawi and al-Modallal said talks are advancing, but both warned the process would be difficult.

If the power-sharing attempt does succeed, several U.S. congressman have threatened to cut off crucial American aid to the Palestinian Authority. Since Washington designates Hamas as a terrorist group, they say this is required under U.S. law. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also has expressed opposition to the unity deal.

On Thursday, the U.S. special envoy to the peace talks, Martin Indyk, blamed both sides for the breakdown. He said neither made "the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace." But he also held out hope the talks could resume eventually, saying that "In the Middle East, it's never over."

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