The State Department was caught off guard Wednesday by the announcement of a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, a development that could spell the end of Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to keep Israelis and Palestinians talking beyond an April 29 deadline.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters "the timing was troubling and we were certainly disappointed." She said the move could "seriously complicate" efforts toward keeping alive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The Israelis signaled their anger by canceling a negotiation session that had been scheduled for Wednesday evening.
The Palestinian agreement, which ends a seven-year split, gives the two factions five weeks to form a government in preparation for full elections six months later.
The United States said Israel should not be expected to negotiate with any government that includes Hamas unless the political/militant group renounces violence, recognizes Israel's right to exist and pledges to respect preexisting agreements.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said there was "no incompatibility between reconciliation and the talks" and reiterated that the Palestinians were committed to working toward a two-state solution.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its affiliated Palestine Center, a Washington think tank that focuses on the conflict, said it was important to note that the Palestinian agreement calls for a "consensus" government rather than a "unity" government. He said the difference means that the parties would come to a consensus on the makeup of the next administration, but that ministers wouldn't necessarily hold party membership.
"The U.S. response is outdated to say the least," Munayyer said. "They can't claim to want peace talks to succeed while enforcing Palestinian division."
Psaki said it was too early to tell whether there was any way to salvage the peace talks, saying "the ball at this point is in the Palestinians' court." She said Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the issue by telephone Wednesday, but she did not give details of the call.
Psaki said she couldn't predict what would happen on April 29, the deadline for a U.S.-orchestrated peace effort. Officials had been trying to extend the talks.
"Obviously, this is a very fluid situation," Psaki said.