Israeli President Shimon Peres yesterday described a long-awaited reconciliation deal between two Palestinian factions as a "fatal mistake" that will destroy any hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
A day after Fatah, the party that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, and its Islamist rival Hamas, which governs Gaza, unexpectedly patched up their differences to end a four-year rift, Israeli politicians slammed the move, saying that Israel could never work with Hamas.
Following secret talks in Egypt, the two factions pledged to form an interim government within days and hold elections within the year, paving the way to ending the damaging schism that has overshadowed Palestinian national aspirations.
But the preliminary agreement was immediately condemned by Israeli politicians, who have shunned Hamas as a terrorist organisation bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. It "is a fatal mistake which will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and destroy the chances of achieving peace and stability in the region," Mr Peres said.
Arab-Israeli peace talks stalled last September when the moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, walked out after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
Many observers have long believed that peace talks will not succeed as long as Gaza and its 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants are excluded from a peace deal reached only with the Palestinian Authority. Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, leaving Mr Abbas in control of the West Bank.
Yesterday, Mr Abbas suggested that that the formation of an interim government should not preclude peace negotiations with Israel, noting that it is the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to which Hamas does not belong, that is responsible for "handling politics, negotiations".
Instead, he suggested the accord could convince Palestinian factions to accept conditions set by the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel's right to exist, and acceptance of past agreements.
Officials unveiled the accord late on Wednesday. The move is seen by some as an effort to bolster Mr Abbas's claim to represent the Palestinian people when, as expected, he calls on the United Nations in September to recognise a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. The two sides have reached this stage before and there are some who remain sceptical that Fatah and Hamas can so easily gloss over their deep-rooted differences, not least regarding who will control the security forces and whether they should engage in an armed or peaceful struggle against Israel.
Israeli Defence minister Ehud Barak warned the Palestinians yesterday that any hostile move by Hamas would be greeted by Israel's "iron fist". He said: "We will never negotiate with Hamas, it's a criminal organisation." Mr Netanyahu had earlier urged Mr Abbas to choose between Hamas and peace.
Mr Abbas said that unity with Hamas was vital: "Dislike, agree or disagree – they're our people. You, Mr Netanyahu, [are] our partner."