WASHINGTON — In a potentially fatal blow to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, the government of Israel broke off US-sponsored peace talks on Thursday after Palestinian leaders announced a “unity pact” with one of the leading anti-Israel terrorist groups.
The surprise Israeli move was the most ominous sign yet that Kerry’s nine months of personal diplomacy, which was facing a crucial deadline next week, may founder amid seemingly intractable differences in the region’s longest-running conflict.
Israel’s decision came a day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas disclosed a plan to form a new government with Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip and does not recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist. The unity pact was the first indication in seven years that the opposing Palestinian factions are seeking to join forces.
“This evening, as peace talks were about to take place, Abbas chose Hamas and not peace,” said a statement issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace.”
The usually upbeat Kerry sounded more pessimistic after Israel’s announcement Thursday but insisted there was still hope that a peace deal could be reached if Israeli and Palestinian leaders can find a way to compromise.
“We may see a way forward,” he told reporters at the State Department, “but if they’re not willing to make the compromises necessary, it becomes very elusive.”
Kerry spoke with Abbas on Thursday morning, telling the Palestinian leader that he was disappointed by the prospect of a Fatah-Hamas alliance, according to a spokeswoman. Meanwhile, his peace envoy, Ambassador Martin Indyk, remained in the region.
“We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities of peace,” Kerry told reporters. “We believe it is the only way to go. But right now, obviously, it’s at a very difficult point. And the leaders themselves have to make decisions. It’s up to them.”
Experts in the Arab-Israeli conflict said the development could be the death knell for the peacemaking effort that Kerry jump-started last year and personally kept going on more than a dozen trips to the region. His ambitious goal was to midwife in less than a year the establishment of an independent Palestinian state centered on the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East War.
“The latest developments are deeply damaging to Kerry’s effort,” said Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The agreement between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas, Zilber said, “hands Israeli opponents of peace talks a ready rationale to leave the talks. And it complicates things for the Palestinian side. Last time there was a unity government, in 2006 and 2007, the international community cut off a lot of aid coming into the Palestinian Authority.
“On both sides it complicates reaching agreement on any sort of peace deal,” Zilber added.
Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant group, was founded in 1987 during the so-called first Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. Backed by its so-called Qassam Brigades, it is now the de facto ruler in the Gaza Strip, the slice of territory Israel also seized in 1967 on the Mediterranean coast and is separated from the larger West Bank by the rest of Israel.
Hamas has never taken part in peace talks. The organization has repeatedly refused to accept the internationally agreed-upon principles for Arab-Israeli peace, including the renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
But Hamas also represents many of the Gaza Strip’s estimated one million Palestinians, most of whom are living in squalor. It devotes much of its estimated $70 million annual budget to an extensive social services network, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in New York.
Not everyone agrees that Abbas’s willingness to include Hamas in the political process is bad, including some influential members of the Israeli security establishment who assert that peace can only be achieved if Hamas is brought into the fold and ultimately disarmed.
Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, in a statement called it a “big step forward.”
A unity government, he said, would finally make Abbas the “representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas will become part of the process.” He called the unity agreement a “major victory to pragmatism.”
Kerry has staked his own credibility on the outcome of the talks and as a result has endured criticism that he is naive about the true intentions of both sides.
The talks already were scheduled to expire next week. Up until Thursday, both sides had been working on an agreement to extend the negotiations.
Although Kerry has been the personal face of the talks, the collapse is also a blow to President Obama, who had been searching for a second-term foreign policy success. Kerry shuttled between both sides in hopes of keeping talks going and to huddle with his hand-picked State Department negotiators.
US officials, in an effort to win more Israeli concessions, even recently floated the idea of releasing convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, a cause célèbre for many on the Israeli right.
Israel earlier this month backed away from a pledge to release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, while the Palestinian Authority independently sought membership in United Nations organizations, a step that was considered a breach of trust. At the time, Kerry, expressing his frustration at the lack of progress, said the United States would reevaluate its role in the negotiations.
“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unable to take constructive steps,” he said.
But in Zilber’s view, without Kerry’s central role there probably would be no peace process at all.
“Kerry should be commended,” he said. “It is very easy to pooh-pooh it and be cynical, but absent peace talks it usually doesn’t get better. It gets worse.”