Cracks have appeared in the fledgling national reconciliation between moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement and the militant Hamas group over whether the unity government to be formed within five weeks will recognise Israel.
A day after Israel suspended the troubled Middle East peace talks in response to the Fatah-Hamas agreement reached on Wednesday, saying it would not deal with a government that is backed by Hamas, elements within Fatah took pains to stress that the new government will recognise Israel and meet two other conditions set by the international community for dealing with Hamas: renouncing violence and honouring previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
It still remains unclear whether for Mr Abbas the agreement with Hamas was designed as a tactic to pressure Israel into meeting his demands to extend peace talks or a more strategic move based on the calculation that, nine years into his term, he needs to hold elections to renew his mandate. Polling has been impossible as long as the Hamas-Fatah rift persists because Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and can thwart it.
The next five weeks will test the durability of the reconciliation agreement. Mr Abbas concluded previous reconciliation deals with Hamas in Cairo in 2011 and Doha in 2012, but the two sides never implemented them, raising the possibility Mr Abbas had no intention of following through on this one either. In any event, judging by Israel's reaction, including economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, he seems to have miscalculated in thinking he could simultaneously deal with both Hamas and Israel. Israeli officials have said the suspension of talks is in effect until it becomes clear whether the new government recognises Israel and meets the international conditions.
A senior Palestinian official was quoted by the Times of Israel website yesterday as saying that Mr Abbas and Fatah ''won't agree to complete the reconciliation process'' unless Hamas agrees that the new government ''accepts the two state solution-Israel and Palestine-along the 1967 lines''.
The new government would also ''adhere to the conditions of the Middle East quartet [the EU, UN, Russia and US], recognise Israel, ratify all signed agreements and renounce violence,'' the official said.
According to the office of the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, Mr Abbas himself offered identical assurances about the new government when the two men met on Thursday.
However, the view in Hamas, which opted for the reconciliation pact partly to improve its standing after the loss of its key ally with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, is different. Contradicting what Mr Abbas has been saying, a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank, Hassan Youssef, ruled out any recognition of Israel by the new government. Asked during an interview with The Independent whether the new government, which will be comprised of technocrats and headed by Mr Abbas, will accept the quartet's conditions, Mr Youssef said: ''This is not its role. Its role is not political. Its goal is to run matters as a transition stage until elections. Its goal is just to supervise the elections, no more.''
''Are the quartet conditions the Quran?'' Mr Youssef continued. ''Are they the New Testament? These conditions must change because they are unjust and what is needed are conditions that respect the circumstances and choices of the Palestinian people. These conditions are unacceptable to us.''
About recognising Israel, the Hamas leader said: ''The [Abbas-led] Palestine Liberation Organisation is the one that negotiates with Israel and recognised Israel. It is not required of every Palestinian party to recognise Israel just as it is not required of every Israeli party to have the same views as other Israeli parties.''
Mr Youssef, who has served a total of 17 years in Israeli prisons and is considered a pragmatist in Hamas, said that the PLO made a mistake by recognising Israel. ''Hamas does not want to give an advance position on this. The PLO gave an advance position and Israel gave it nothing. If Israel recognises all the rights of the Palestinian people and meets all its demands and we can see it on the ground then for every event, there is a response.''
He declined to limit resistance to occupation to non-violent popular protests as Mr Abbas did in his talks with Mr Serry.''We as a Palestinian people whose land is occupied and whose holy places are occupied have the right to defend ourselves. We agree with popular resistance but all options are before the Palestinian people.''