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Israel Suspends Peace Talks After Palestinians Reach Unity Deal


Let's talk about a busy week of news in the Middle East. Israel has now broken off peace talks with the Palestinians. These talks were already in a stalemate. This latest decision comes in response to internal Palestinian politics. This week two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, agreed to end a seven-year split and form a coalition government. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, as well as the United States and the European Union.

For more we turn to NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Emily, good morning.


GREENE: So remind us why Israel is refusing to talk to a government that might include Hamas?

HARRIS: Well, Israel officially does not talk to Hamas at all. Israel cites Hamas's history of bombings in Israel that have included killing hundreds of civilians and rockets that continue to be launched from Gaza into Israel. Hamas, as you know, is the government that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel controls that border, so you might think that they have to talk to each other to some degree, but here's an example of how they don't.

When you walk into Gaza, if you cross through the Israeli checkpoint, first you check in with Fatah people inside Gaza before going into check in with the Hamas people. Fatah is the other major Palestinian faction, of course, which does recognize Israel and negotiates with Israel.

GREENE: We should remind our listeners - Fatah is the faction that controls the Palestinian Authority and also Palestinian areas of the West Bank. And so what is the message from the Palestinians right now?

HARRIS: The president of the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas, says no reason that talks with Israel can't continue, even as a reunification deal with Hamas goes through. Palestinian officials say any peace deal needs Hamas on board and they also strongly criticized Israel for suspending talks. They say Israel has sabotaged the past nine months of talks, in particular by continuing to build Israeli homes on West Bank land.

GREENE: Well, if this question of Palestinian unification is so important here, an important dynamic, I mean, remind us about the split between Hamas and Fatah and how deep it is.

HARRIS: First of all, Hamas was formed in the 1980s in part because of unhappiness with the Palestinian leadership at that time. And then in 2006 there were elections. Hamas swept the legislative elections. Then a year later the parties fought in a very violent few days which led to Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip. So the gap is pretty deep.

But this attempt to unify might have better chances than past efforts because both parties face new and difficult domestic challenges. Their plan for reconciliation is pretty fast. It calls for a united government within five weeks and then elections about six months after that. Those would be the first elections since 2006. So neither the president nor the people who were elected in 2006 to the legislature have a mandate anymore.

GREENE: You know, Emily, the United States, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, putting so much energy into bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. I mean if there's a risk here that this is, you know, a new and big setback in the talks, what does the United States do next?

HARRIS: The United States seems to be taking the line right now of wait and see. Yesterday Secretary Kerry said he's not going to give up hope or a commitment to the possibilities of peace. He called Palestinian president Abbas and expressed disappointment in the decision to go for a reunification with Hamas right now as peace talks are basically at the stage where both sides are simply trying to decide whether they're going to even continue to talk to each other.

One key thing is how this unification government, if it happens, will deal with three principles that Mahmoud Abbas has accepted in dealing with Israel - nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and an agreement to abide by past documents and past agreements that were signed.

Questions are, you know, will Hamas do this or will a united government manage those questions in a way that the U.S. and Israel can work with. Not only peace talks but U.S. financial support of the Palestinian Authority might be affected by this question.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Emily Harris speaking to us from Jerusalem. Emily, thanks a lot.

HARRIS: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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