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Obama Administration Insists Mideast Peace Talks Still Alive

Obama Administration Insists Mideast Peace Talks Still Alive

On Thursday, American-brokered peace talks ground to a halt with the Israeli government’s decision to suspend negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization after it brokered a unity agreement with rival Palestinian faction Hamas. The decision brought the peace negotiations to one of the lowest points yet in Secretary of State John Kerry’s controversial, months-long effort to bring the two sides together, but the State Department refused to declare the talks dead.

Doubts about the fate of the negotiations were fueled by loud opposition to the Palestinian unity deal by both Israel and the United States. "It’s a blow to Israel; it’s a blow to peace." said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A senior U.S. administration official floated the idea of suspending aid to the PLO if it went through with the deal because Hamas has long been designated as a terrorist organization. When asked if the unity deal effectively killed the negotiations, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki pushed back.

"I don’t think we have any such announcement to make," she said, noting the continued presence of lead U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk in the country. She said that it would be "unlikely that he would stay" in the region if there were no chance to broker an historic deal.

But keeping the talks alive will prove difficult, if not impossible. The Israeli government announced on Thursday that it would call off negotiations for at least five weeks as the Palestinians formed a unity government. Meanwhile, U.S. critics of the peace effort are beginning to lose patience, and powerful voices in Congress have made clear that taxpayer funds to a Palestinian government including Hamas is verboten.

"Hamas continues to deny Israel’s right to exist and has renounced all agreements with the U.S. and Israeli governments," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement to Foreign Policy. "Aid suspension to a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas is the law."

Royce’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY)  also suggested a suspension of aid may be in order. "Just as this deal could undermine American peacemaking efforts in the region, it would also endanger the future of American assistance to the Palestinians," he said in a statement. 

Palestinians, however, say they are committed to a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s existence. In an interview with Army Radio, senior PLO official Jabril Rajoub said Hamas agreed to the terms of a two-state solution in meetings with President Mahmoud Abbas. "We weren’t willing to sign the reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all factions that we are driving forward our nation to a two-state solution," he said. "I hope that Israel will allow Abbas to continue peace negotiations, on the basis of two states for two peoples." At press time, there were no outward signs from Hamas spokespersons that those terms had been accepted. 

Despite PLO assurances, Psaki continued to call the unity deal "unhelpful" given Hamas’s historic opposition to recognizing Israel. However, a senior administration official offered a less critical view in a statement to Foreign Policy. "Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements," the official said. "If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its adherence to the stipulations above, its policies and actions, and will determine any implications for our assistance based on U.S. law."

The U.S. government’s overall skepticism was not shared by the European Union, which welcomed the the unity deal. "The European Union believes that the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is an important step toward a two-state solution,’ Michael Mann, spokesperson for the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, told Haaretz.

Most parties involved acknowledge that no peace deal is possible as long as the Palestinians remain bitterly divided into separate factions — a point emphasized by Senator Tim Kaine, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Middle East. "Israel could hardly live securely with an agreement accepted by only a portion of the Palestinian people and leadership," he said. He urged the unity government to affirm Israel’s right to exist and its intent to live peacefully with its neighbor. "If the announced reconciliation between the PLO and Hamas holds, it will at least provide some clarity," he said. 

In any event, the longer Kerry spends on the intractable conflict, the more ammunition it gives  his critics who believe the effort is a waste of time. Earlier this month, Arizona Senator John McCain accused him of "failing very badly" and focusing on the wrong conflicts during a Senate hearing. Kerry struck back. "You declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead," Mr. Kerry said. "They want to continue to negotiate."

At this point, that’s no longer true, at least for the Israelis.