The United States on Wednesday warned that a deal to form a Palestinian unity government could seriously hamper its already floundering efforts to forge a peace deal with Israel.
Any Palestinian government must commit "unambiguously" to the principles of non-violence and to the existence of Israel as well as to already agreed treaties, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, restating a long-held US position.
"Absent a clear commitment to those principles... this could seriously complicate not just our efforts, but the efforts between the parties more importantly to extend the negotiations," she told reporters.
"It's hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist."
Washington was both "disappointed" and "troubled" by Wednesday's announcement of a rapprochement between the Palestine Liberation Organization — internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people — and the Islamist Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, Psaki said.
The clock is ticking down to an April 29 deadline set by Secretary of State John Kerry last year when he dragged the two sides back to the negotiating table in July.
The Israelis and Palestinians both agreed to continue the negotiations — which had been frozen for three years — for the next nine months with the aim of reaching a full peace treaty.
But the talks are in complete disarray despite Kerry's efforts during a dozen trips to the region in his first year as the top U.S. diplomat.
The Palestinian move, which appeared to have taken U.S. officials by surprise, is yet another blow to the peace talks which seem to be hurtling towards complete collapse.
Kerry had telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Psaki said, and the U.S. negotiating team on the ground was seeking more information from the Palestinians about the outlines of the deal.
Hamas has been blacklisted by the U.S. since 1997. And its participation in any power-sharing government led by president Mahmud Abbas' Fatah party could also lead to a cut-off in aid and funding to the Palestinians, although Psaki refused to speculate on that.
"I think that the ball at this point is in the Palestinians' court to answer these questions as to whether these principles would be met through the reconciliation process," Psaki said, noting that such unity efforts had been tried and failed in the past.
"If President Abbas were to continue to pursue reconciliation, Hamas would need to abide by these principles in order to be a part of the government."
A joint PLO and Hamas statement said that an independent Palestinian government would be formed within five weeks and tasked with holding parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. The news brought thousands of people out onto the streets of the Hamas-ruled and impoverished Gaza Strip in celebration.