JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister said Tuesday he is “deeply troubled” by the United States’ decision to maintain relations with the new Palestinian unity government, urging Washington to tell the Palestinian president that his alliance with the Hamas militant group is unacceptable.
The blunt language used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected his dismay over the international community’s embrace of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ new unity government, and marked the latest in a string of disagreements between Netanyahu and the White House.
Netanyahu has urged the world to shun the government because it is backed by Hamas, an Islamic group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks over the past two decades. But late Monday, both the U.S. and European Union said they would give Abbas a chance.
“I’m deeply troubled by the announcement that the United States will work with the Palestinian government backed by Hamas,” Netanyahu told The Associated Press, saying the group has murdered “countless innocent civilians.”
“All those who genuinely seek peace must reject President Abbas’ embrace of Hamas, and most especially, I think the United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian president that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Asked whether Israel is lobbying its allies to change their position toward the unity government, an Israeli official said the government is “definitely in a conversation with the U.S. and other world powers, sharing our views on how to deal with the Palestinian government.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomatic effort with the media.
Israel and the West have branded Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, a terrorist group. But Israel’s allies in Washington and Europe have said they will maintain ties to the new government – and continue sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid – as long as it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
Abbas says the new Cabinet is committed to these principles. It is made up of apolitical technocrats who have no ties to Hamas, which has agreed to support the government from the outside.
Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas formed the new government Monday in a major step toward ending a seven-year rift that left the Palestinians divided between two governments.
Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas’ forces in June 2007, leaving him in control only of autonomous areas of the West Bank. The Palestinians claim the two areas, along with Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, for an independent state. Israel captured the territories in 1967.
The Palestinian rift is considered a major obstacle to statehood. Many in Israel itself have long used it to argue that a deal with Abbas is not credible because he doesn’t govern all the Palestinians.
As U.S.-backed peace talks collapsed in late April, Abbas decided to focus on getting internal Palestinian affairs in order and reached the reconciliation deal with Hamas.
The world community’s reaction suggests a general sense that the reconciliation might constitute an elegant solution to a conundrum: While few countries back Hamas, the group seems here to stay. And since Hamas will probably not formally accept the existence of Israel anytime soon, its backing of a government that Abbas says does might be seen as a step forward.
Israel is instead accusing Abbas of abandoning hopes for peace.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett said officials were blindsided by Washington’s decision, likening it to Israel deciding to begin talking to al-Qaida. He said the U.S. is still Israel’s best friend, but called the move a “profound disappointment.”
“We think to some extent it sends a message that being a terrorist pays,” Bennett told the AP. “There’s a clear moral line that you don’t cross. And unfortunately America in this latest decision crossed this line.”
The Israeli reactions were the latest salvo in a battle with Palestinians for world opinion following the collapse of Mideast peace talks in late April. Each side has been eager to portray the other as intransigent.
Abbas’ prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, told reporters Tuesday that the government is committed to all agreements previously reached with Israel and would continue the president’s “programs of peace,” aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“We call on the international community to immediately recognize the government and continue to support the Palestinian political leadership’s efforts to enable the government to face all political challenges, especially the Israeli policies that hinder the political and economic stability in the region,” Hamdallah said.
The formation of the unity government does not resolve the Palestinian rift altogether. It remains unclear whether the sides will hold elections early next year, as they have agreed. Hamas also maintains a large, heavily armed fighting force in Gaza and is reluctant to cede control to Abbas. There are also questions about how to merge tens of thousands of dual civil services into one.
Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, said the sides would form committees to “sort out” remaining issues.
In the coming weeks, Netanyahu will be sure to point out Hamas’ continued control of Gaza as he seeks to discredit the new government. He has also warned that he will hold Abbas responsible for any rocket fire that comes out of Gaza. Hamas, which possesses tens of thousands of rockets, has largely honored a truce with Israel in recent years, but various other militant groups in Gaza often fire rockets into Israel and could be eager to embarrass the new government.
Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu spokesman, said the Israeli prime minister does not fear being isolated internationally.
“He sees himself as the leader of the Jewish state, the Jewish people, against the world,” Hendel said. “If you check Jewish history, it’s part of our narrative, to be on the outside.”