Palestinian leader downplays fears over Hamas deal

The moderate Palestinian president played down concerns that his emerging alliance with the militant Hamas will undermine peace negotiations with Israel, insisting Thursday that he will retain control over foreign policy and remain committed to resolving the conflict.

President Mahmoud Abbas' pro-Western Fatah Party and the rival Hamas said Wednesday they had reached the outlines of a deal to end a four-year-old rift that has left the Palestinians with two rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel and the international community gave a cool reception to the reconciliation plan, which would make Hamas a partner in a unity government.

Abbas said if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him and asked to resume peace talks, "I would do so immediately," as long as Israel fulfilled his demand to stop all construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.

Despite his pledges, the unity plan reflects Abbas' dissatisfaction with U.S.-backed peace efforts, which broke down in September, just three weeks after their launch when an Israeli settlement construction freeze expired.

Abbas says there is no point in talking peace while Israel builds homes on occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians, and he has made no secret about his unhappiness with Washington's inability to halt settlement activity. Israel counters that the settlement issue should be discussed in negotiations instead of being made a precondition.

The division between Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Iranian-backed Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has been a major obstacle to the Palestinian goal of establishing an independent state in the two areas.

The new plan calls for the factions to form a caretaker government to prepare the way for presidential and legislative elections next year. But the involvement of Hamas, a group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, has raised speculation that Abbas has given up on U.S.-led peace efforts with Israel.

Speaking in the city of Ramallah, his West Bank headquarters, Abbas tried to ease such concerns. He said the unity government's duties would be limited to elections and helping to rebuild the Gaza Strip after a devastating war with Israel two years ago. Relations with Israel would be handled by Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Politics is for the PLO and its chairman, which is me, and the government will work according to my policy," Abbas said during a meeting with Israeli peace activists.

He stressed that there would be no Hamas representatives in the new government.

"These people will be independent, technocrats, not affiliated with any factions, neither Fatah nor Hamas," he said.

In another gesture to Israel, he also signaled there would be no release of Hamas prisoners being held on weapons charges.

The unity plan appears to be influenced by the unrest and calls for freedom sweeping through the Mideast. The Palestinian rift is deeply unpopular with the public, and both the West Bank and Gaza have experienced street protests recently with youths urging the sides to reconcile. Hamas, in particular, has been jolted by the mass demonstrations in Syria, which hosts the headquarters and exiled leadership of the militant group.

With a breakdown in peace talks with Israel, the Palestinians have been campaigning to get the United Nations to recognize Palestinian statehood in September, with or without a peace deal. A unified Palestinian front would help rally international support for the initiative.

But Abbas is taking a huge risk by engaging Hamas.

Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group, and Abbas could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid if the group is formally part of a government.

His prime minister, U.S.-educated economist Salam Fayyad, is widely respected in the West and has been the main reason the international community has funneled so much money into his state-building effort in the West Bank. Losing Fayyad could put that money in jeopardy.

Abbas said it was "too early to tell" what would happen with Fayyad.

Israel could also impose sanctions on the Palestinians if Abbas follows through with the unity plan. For example, Israel might cut off security cooperation between its army and Abbas' forces that has helped reduce violence in the West Bank in recent years.

Israel boycotted a previous Palestinian unity government, which collapsed in 2007 amid disagreements over whether to seek peace with Israel. That ultimately led to the Palestinian civil war that resulted in Hamas' takeover of Gaza.

Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have harshly condemned Abbas' overtures to Hamas.

Netanyahu has said Abbas must choose "between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas." President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, called Abbas' move a "grave mistake," and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that Hamas "terrorists" would take over the West Bank.

Israel's opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, urged the international community to put heavy pressure on the Palestinians to ensure the new government renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

Hamas refused to endorse these international conditions during the previous unity government, and its leaders have said this week they will not make peace with Israel.

The U.S. has already said the new Palestinian government must accept the international demands, and France followed suit on Thursday. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton greeted the unity deal with caution.