Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is making a heavy push for reconciliation with Hamas and is willing to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid if that's what it takes to forge a Palestinian unity deal, a top aide said yesterday.
The comments were the latest sign that Abbas is giving up on stalled peace talks with Israel and prefers to pursue unity with Gaza's Hamas rulers as he makes a push toward independence.
"Of course we need the American money. But if they use it as a way of pressuring us, we are ready to relinquish that aid," said Azzam Ahmed, an Abbas aide.
The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group. The U.S. administration, the largest single donor to the Palestinians, withheld funds when Hamas was a part of a short-lived unity Palestinian government. The Palestinian Authority is heavily reliant on foreign aid, and forgoing the funds could easily spark its own crisis.
The Palestinian unity government, isolated internationally because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, collapsed during a five-day civil war in 2007 that ended with the Islamic militant group seizing power in the Gaza Strip.
Since then, the Palestinians have been divided between rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories they hope to turn into an independent state.
With peace talks stalled since September, Abbas has begun an effort to win international recognition of Palestine, with or without an agreement with Israel. That effort is to culminate at the United Nations in September.
Speaking in Jerusalem yesterday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that reconciliation with Hamas could spell the end of peace talks. You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas. Choose peace with Israel," Netanyahu said.
Palestinian officials acknowledge that they must solve their differences with Hamas before they can go to the United Nations. Abbas has made repeated overtures toward Hamas in recent weeks - including an offer to visit Gaza to lay the groundwork for national elections. Over the weekend, he met with Hamas officials in the West Bank.
Hamas leaders say they want a full power-sharing deal before meeting with the Palestinian president - including a deal on how to divide security responsibilities.
Hamas is demanding further gestures from Abbas before considering unity, such as a release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners locked up in the West Bank, re-opening closed Hamas charities and the removal of a ban on Hamas activities in the West Bank.
Palestinian analysts say Hamas has hardened its positions recently and is feeling empowered by the upheavals in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, where its ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to play a key role in the new regime.
Ayman Hussein, a West Bank Hamas member who recently met Abbas in Ramallah, said Abbas appeared serious in his efforts to reach out to Hamas and was pessimistic about the peace process with Israel.
Hanna Amerah, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Abbas has support for his move from the European Union, the UN and the Arab League. But giving up on the United States and Israel could come at a heavy price.
The Palestinians receive more than $470 million a year in direct financial assistance from the United States The U.S. hasn't said what it will do if Hamas returns to power in the West Bank, but it will likely cut off the funds unless Hamas agrees to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas has given no indication it is prepared to do either.
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