Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled on Saturday that he remains committed to troubled U.S.-backed peace talks, saying that any unity government including Hamas would recognize Israel as a Jewish state — a major sticking point in negations.
Abbas' comments come shortly after Israel suspended negotiations following the signing of a unity agreement between rival Palestinian political factions.
"The government would be under my command and my policy," Abbas told senior leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) at his presidential headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "Its purview will be what happens domestically. I recognize Israel, and it would recognize Israel. I reject violence and terrorism," he said.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected talks with such a government.
"That's the oldest trick in the book. It's called the front office-back gambit," he said, in which "shady organizations" put forward "smooth-talking frontmen — the men in suits," Netanyahu said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday. "We will not sit and negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas in which Hamas has effective share of power," Netanyahu said.
Hamas said Saturday it would not change its stance on Israel. "The recognition of Israel by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is not new. What is important is that Hamas did not and will never recognize Israel," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
For many Palestinians, to recognize Israel "as a Jewish state" would mean forfeiting the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their land during the creation of the state of Israel. That right is protected by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.
Israel wants a Jewish state and said the recognition would include reciprocity — Israel would recognize Palestine as a state for the Palestinians. But for the 20 percent of Israel's population who are Arab, the offer is an ominous one, with some fearing they could lose their citizenship in such a deal.
On Thursday, Netanyahu put on hold troubled U.S.-led negotiations because of the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian unity pact. Abbas said Saturday that his side's position had not changed, despite Israel's argument that a unified Palestinian polity could not be a credible negotiating partner.
Israel objects to any Hamas participation in Palestinian politics. The group is currently in charge of the besieged Gaza Strip, which is territorially separate from the West Bank, where Abbas exercises limited self-governance under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is designated as a “terrorist” organization by the United States and European Union for numerous fatal attacks against Israelis over the years.
But Abbas said that his side was still hoping to restart the process for talks, so long as Israel meets his longstanding demands to free prisoners under an earlier deal and to halt building settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
"How can we restart the talks? There's no obstacle to us restarting the talks, but the 30 prisoners need to be released,” he said, speaking at a meeting of senior leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization at his presidential headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"On the table we will present our map. For three months we'll discuss our map. In that period, until the map is agreed upon, all settlement activity must cease completely," he told the officials, who were gathered for a two-day conference to assess the Palestinian strategy to achieve statehood.
Before Thursday, discussions between the two sides had already been stretched to the breaking point after Israel failed in early April to release a final round of a prisoners as it had pledged to do in a March agreement, and after Palestinians subsequently applied for membership in 15 international organizations – a move that Israel objects as a unilateral move to Palestinian statehood.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had set April 29 as the deadline to agree to a negotiating framework that would guide a final negotiating push toward resolving the longstanding conflict. Many engaged in the process were hopeful that the deadline would be extended.
Al Jazeera and Reuters