Israel is urging the United States and key European governments to press Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to establish a unity government with Hamas.
Abbas has called for new Palestinian elections within six months, but says they cannot be held unless Gaza Strip residents participate. And Hamas refuses to hold elections in Gaza unless there is a reconciliation deal.
In an interview with CNN yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously opposed the unity government idea, which he said would preclude any progress in the peace process.
Netanyahu told CNN that Fatah is talking about national unity with Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction. He questioned how is it possible to be for peace with Israel and also for peace with Hamas, which he said wants to destroy Israel, and likened such a situation to a peace agreement with Al-Qaida.
Sources in Netanyahu's bureau said that he and two of his top aides, Ron Dermer and Isaac Molho, have begun discussing the issue with the Americans and other international players. "Netanyahu plans to raise the issue in conversations with foreign leaders over the coming days," said one.
The sources declined to say whether formation of a Palestinian unity government would result in Israeli sanctions on the PA or the cessation of security cooperation with it. For now, they said, Netanyahu is focused on diplomatic action.
"We are demanding that the international community make it clear to the Palestinians that forming a national unity government with Hamas is a step that would attest to lack of interest in continuing the peace process," said the source.
Since last weekend's terror attack in Itamar, Netanyahu has ceased talking about the need to advance the peace process, both publicly and in private conversations. Instead, he has begun stressing Palestinian incitement and the security risks of a West Bank pullout. He was therefore extremely unhappy with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's speech to the Institute for National Security Studies this week, in which he warned that a "diplomatic tsunami" would engulf Israel if it didn't advance the peace process.
Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be almost equally unhappy with Abbas' initiative. On Wednesday, in response to pro-unity demonstrations organized by young Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza the day before, Abbas declared that he was ready to go to Gaza immediately to thresh out a unity deal. But Hamas' initial response was lukewarm: It said merely that "Hamas' leadership will discuss practical measures for welcoming the president and ending the schism."
Yesterday, however, it seemed that Al Jazeera television was pushing it into a corner. The station, which has previously been highly critical of Abbas and the PA, was supportive of his unity drive in its broadcasts yesterday - and for good measure, it also aired footage of efforts by Hamas policemen to disperse the pro-unity demonstrators in Gaza by force. In addition, it reported that Hamas had detained one of its journalists for covering the demonstration.
Essentially, Al Jazeera is painting Hamas as the one thwarting internal Palestinian reconciliation. And that creates a serious problem for the organization's image among the Palestinian public.
Many senior Hamas officials actually favor reconciliation, including its prime minister for Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. On Tuesday, Haniyeh even publicly urged Abbas to come to Gaza to negotiate a deal.
But Haniyeh doesn't make the organization's decisions. The real power is held by its political leadership in Damascus and the heads of its military wing in Gaza. And so far, they have opposed a unity deal that would lead to elections in six months.
Their theory is that the uprisings in the Arab world, and especially in Egypt, will strengthen the organization's position among both the Palestinians and the broader Arab world. In particular, the Egyptian revolution is likely to boost the political influence of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and a friendlier government to its south can only help the organization.
Hamas also expects Abbas' Fatah party to suffer a leadership crisis when he resigns. That, too, would bolster the rival party.
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