JERUSALEM -- Responding to a unity accord between Palestinian factions, the Israeli government said Thursday that it was suspending negotiations with the Palestinians, breaking off nine months of talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the talks were "suspended now," because of pending moves by the Palestinians to establish a unity government that would be backed by the militant Islamist group Hamas as well as the more moderate Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli step came days before a deadline Tuesday for extending the talks.
After a meeting that lasted several hours, the Israeli security Cabinet issued a statement saying it had "unanimously decided that Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's destruction." The statement warned of an unspecified "series of measures" in response to "unilateral Palestinian action," suggesting that Israel would take retaliatory steps if the Palestinians follow through on their unity pact.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Mr. Kerry had reiterated his disappointment in the timing of the Palestinian reconciliation announcement in a phone call Thursday with Mr. Abbas.
Ms. Psaki, who for months has responded to questions about the viability of the peace talks with a pat line about both sides emphasizing their commitment, could not say whether that was still the case. She acknowledged that the Israeli move didn't bode well for extending talks beyond the deadline, but she wouldn't characterize the effort as dead, and even lumped in the development with "ups and downs" seen throughout the process.
"Choices need to be made by both parties, and we'll see what happens," Ms. Psaki said. She was careful to avoid assigning blame for the breakdown, saying both sides have taken "unhelpful" steps throughout the talks.
On Wednesday, Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement to carry out a long-stalled reconciliation accord. The accord provides for establishment of a unity government composed of technocrats within five weeks, which would prepare for elections six months later. Similar accords in recent years have failed to materialize, and it was unclear whether the latest pact, announced with much fanfare in Gaza, would in fact produce a joint Fatah-Hamas government, ending a bitter split.
The two factions fought a brief civil war in the Gaza Strip in 2007 before Hamas seized power there, and they remain deeply divided over peace talks with Israel. Fatah, which is dominant in the West Bank, supports negotiations for establishing a Palestinian state in that territory, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, but Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and advocates armed action against the Israelis.
Palestinian officials have argued that the unity accord would boost Mr. Abbas' standing in peace negotiations, providing him with the legitimacy to deliver on an accord with the Israelis. But Israeli government leaders have condemned the reconciliation agreement, saying it put Mr. Abbas in league with bitter enemies of Israel and snuffed out prospects for a negotiated peace.
The faltering talks were plunged into crisis early this month after Israel failed to carry out a promised release of Palestinian prisoners, and Mr. Abbas responded by applying for Palestinian membership in a series of international treaties and conventions. Israel had held back on the prisoner release, demanding that the Palestinians agree to extend the negotiations beyond Tuesday's deadline.
The tit-for-tat moves led Mr. Kerry to cancel a planned trip to the region, and though meetings with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk have continued, the two sides remained far apart as they traded accusations of causing the talks to break down.