Israel has reacted angrily to news that Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian movements, have reached a reconciliation accord that could clear the way to create a temporary unity government.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman today warned that the Palestinian unity deal reached in Cairo on April 27 crossed "a red line," and that an array of punitive measures could be taken against the Palestinian Authority.
Lieberman said Israel had at its disposal "a vast arsenal of measures" to punish the leaders of the Palestinian Authority -- including the lifting of VIP status for Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Such a move would not allow Abbas and Fayyad to travel freely in the region.
The ultranationalist foreign minister, who leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party in the coalition of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said a freeze also could be imposed on the transfer of taxes that are collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority.
The Cairo deal follows 18 months of largely fruitless reconciliation talks between the rival Palestinian factions. It raises the prospect of an end to a political divide that has seen the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority govern the West Bank while the Islamist Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip.
But shortly after the April 27 announcement, Netanyahu rejected the prospect of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
"The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both," Netanyahu said.
"Hamas aspires to destroy Israel, it says so publicly, it fires rockets at our cities, it fires antitank missiles on our children," he added. "I think that the idea of reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and raises questions whether Hamas might take over [the West Bank] as it took over the Gaza Strip. I hope the Palestinian Authority will choose wisely -- will choose peace with Israel. It's their choice."
'Hamas Must Renounce Violence'
Lieberman also said today that the international community should insist that any unity government comply with conditions announced by the peacemaking Middle East Quartet, which includes the United Nations, United States, the European Union, and Russia.
Those conditions include an end to militant violence, recognition of Israel, and recognition of previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Hamas has not accepted any of those conditions.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described Hamas as a "criminal organization" and said Israel would never negotiate with Hamas or accept a Hamas government. Barak also warned that Israel's army and security services "will use an iron fist to deal with any threat and challenge."
Israel's ally, the United States, also reacted coolly to the announcement. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Washington supported Palestinian reconciliation but added that any new government must "renounce violence...and recognize Israel's right to exist."
Unity For Now, Questions Remain
Delegates at the Cairo talks from Hamas and Fatah said their "understanding" could lead to an interim unity government that would govern until presidential and legislative elections are conducted within a year.
Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah's negotiating team in Cairo, said the two movements had agreed to form a government "composed of independent figures" who would start preparing for elections "about eight months from now."
Reuters quoted the Hamas government spokesman in Gaza, Taher al-Nono, as saying that "all points of differences have been overcome" between Hamas and Fatah.
But questions remain about potentially divisive issues, such as who would control the rival Palestinian security forces in Gaza and the West Bank.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has welcomed the reconciliation agreement, calling the move "a positive step towards realizing the historic aims of the oppressed Palestinian nation."
Salehi said he hoped the agreement would serve as ground for "big victories" against the "Israeli occupiers." He also hailed mediation by Egypt for enabling the agreement.
Iran is a supporter of Hamas and wants continued resistance against Israel until Israeli forces relinquish control of all occupied Palestinian territory.
compiled from agency reports