Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas signalled on Saturday that he remains committed to troubled U.S.-backed peace talks, saying that any future unity government that includes the militant group Hamas would recognise Israel.
Abbas’s comments appeared aimed at soothing Western concerns about the unity deal he reached on Wednesday with Hamas, an Islamist faction sworn to Israel’s destruction and designated by Washington as a terrorist organisation.
Israel suspended peace negotiations with Abbas after the reconciliation pact, and the United States said it would reconsider annual aid to the Palestinians worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The government would be under my command and my policy,” Abbas told senior leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at his presidential headquarters in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
“Its purview will be what happens domestically. I recognise Israel and it would recognise Israel. I reject violence and terrorism,” he said.
The deal between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party envisions agreement on a government of independent technocrats within five weeks and holding elections at least six months later.
Hamas’s continued opposition to Israel did not necessarily contradict Abbas, as both sides have agreed that the unity government will not include Hamas members and will instead be made up of independent technocrats.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters: “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 recognise Israel.”
Abbas seeks a Palestinian state in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s secular Fatah in 2007, retains thousands of fighters and an arsenal of rockets. It has fought repeated battles with Israel since it took control of the enclave.
A senior U.S. official said on Thursday that a unity government could call into question some $500 million in their annual security and budget aid to Abbas.
A future Palestinian government must “unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
WILLING TO EXTEND TALKS
Abbas on Saturday added that he was still ready to extend stalled peace talks with Israel, as long as it met long-standing demands to free prisoners and halt building on occupied land.
Commentators said the discussions had already hit a brick wall and the United States had been struggling to extend the talks beyond an original April 29 deadline for a peace accord.
Abbas, for the first time since the suspension, said he was open to re-starting the talks and pushing on beyond the deadline. There was no immediate response from Israeli negotiators.
“How can we restart the talks? There’s no obstacle to us restarting the talks but the 30 prisoners need to be released,” Abbas said.
“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 for achieving statehood.
Talks had veered toward collapse after Israel failed to release a final group of Palestinian prisoners it had promised to free in March, and after Abbas signed several international treaties, which Israel said was a unilateral move towards statehood.
The peace talks resumed in July after a three-year deadlock. The two sides were at odds over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, activity most countries deem illegal, and over Abbas’s refusal to accept a demand by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state.