Israel suspended peace talks with the Palestinians and announced economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority in West Bank on Thursday, as the United States sought to salvage the negotiations aimed at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The suspension of talks came a day after the government of President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization, signed a reconciliation deal with the Gaza-based Hamas movement.
As part of the deal, the two Palestinians sides agreed to form a unity government within five weeks and then hold national elections six months later.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh praised the deal, saying it meant “the era of division is over.”
In response, Israel cancelled a session of U.S.-brokered talks with the Palestinians that had been scheduled for Wednesday night in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also slammed the reconciliation deal, saying Abbas had chosen “Hamas and not peace.”
On Thursday, Israel's security cabinet said it would "not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel," Agence France Presse reported.
The Israeli government also vowed "measures" in response but without elaborating.
Along with the United States and the European Union, Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organization, and says Abbas' efforts to unify with the group show he is not serious about extending the troubled negotiations.
The talks, aimed at ending its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, are scheduled to end on April 29.
While admitting the negotiations had reached "a difficult point," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday urged Israel and the Palestinians to make the compromises needed to forge ahead with peace negotiations.
"There's always a way forward, but the leaders have to make the compromises to do that. We may see a way forward, but if they're not willing to make the compromises necessary it becomes very elusive," AFP quoted Kerry as telling reporters in Washington.
"We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities of peace. We believe it is the only way to go, but right now obviously it's at a very difficult point, and the leaders themselves have to make decisions," Kerry said.
"It's up to them," he added.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it has "always been up to the parties to make the choices needed to pursue a path to peace,” reported AFP.
But she refused to declare the negotiations over, saying "this process needs to work its way through," recalling that "there have been ups and downs" throughout.
Palestinians have long hoped for a healing of the political rift between the PLO and militant Hamas, which won a Palestinian election in 2006 and seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Abbas in 2007.
But reconciliation dreams have been dashed repeatedly in the past. Since 2011, Hamas and Fatah have failed to implement an Egyptian-brokered unity deal because of disputes over power-sharing and the handling of the conflict with Israel.
Hamas has battled Israel, which it refuses to recognize, while Abbas's Fatah party has remained in control of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank and pursued years of fruitless talks with Israel.
Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki told reporters in the West Bank the unity deal did not interfere with Abbas's efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel.
“There is also an understanding with Hamas that the president has the mandate to negotiate with Israel on behalf of all the Palestinian people,” al-Malki said.
[With AFP and Reuters]