Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to reconcile with his arch-rival the Hamas movement, causing many Palestinians in Gaza to celebrate but infuriating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just as the clock ticks down to the end of peace negotiations next Tuesday.

The Palestinian “unity pact,” similar to past pledges that never were consummated, calls for the creation of a unity government within five weeks – with Mr. Abbas remaining as president – and national elections six months after that. Since 2007, following a brief but bitter battle that drove Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) out of the Gaza Strip, the PA has controlled the larger, more populous West Bank, while Hamas has dominated Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu denounced Mr. Abbas’s unified arrangement. “Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel?” the Israeli leader asked Wednesday after hearing news of the pact. “You can have one but not the other.”

Mr. Abbas has staked his reputation on reaching a peace agreement with Israel that would allow for two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace. Hamas does not share that vision, at least not publicly.

Mr. Abbas knew full well how Mr. Netanyahu would react, yet he signed up anyway. He appears to have had his reasons.

For one thing, the PA president would prefer to see the Israeli leader, rather than himself, blamed for pulling the plug on the U.S. life-support that is the only thing keeping the current peace talks alive.

More to the point, Mr. Abbas needed to do this for his own credibility.

Palestinians are increasingly fed up with the PA leader, the man who renounced violent resistance. His vaunted peaceful negotiations have yielded nothing as far as most Palestinians are concerned.

As a result, some Palestinians are advocating tougher bargaining with the Israelis, even greater resistance. It would appear to be for them that Mr. Abbas raised the ante by his reconciliation with Hamas.

Other Palestinians want the president to terminate the peace talks and turn the keys to the West Bank over to the Israelis, letting them run things completely and see how long they last; hence his remarks earlier this week threatening to disband the PA.

For his part, Mr. Abbas still believes a two-state option is the best solution to this 66-year-old conflict. Indeed, after hearing Mr. Netanyahu’s denouncement of the unity pact, he issued a statement insisting: “There’s no contradiction at all between unity and talks, and we’re committed to establishing a just peace based on a two-state solution.”

Washington, which brought the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table in the past nine months, said it was “troubled” by news of the Palestinian rapprochement.

“It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki explained the deal would not interfere with Mr. Abbas’s efforts because there is “an understanding with Hamas that the president has the mandate to negotiate with Israel on behalf of all the Palestinian people.”

When the president reaches an agreement with Israel, he said, there will be “a referendum where the Palestinian people will decide whether they support such an agreement or not.”

Mr. Abbas, it would seem, is trying to satisfy as many of his constituents as possible – though not the Israelis.

A senior Palestinian official, not authorized to speak on this matter, said the thing for the Israelis to take away from all of this is that the Palestinian leader needs to have something to show his people, and quickly. This explains his demand this week that Israel agree to discuss the specifics of a border with Palestine within the first three months of peace talks being extended.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator in these talks, rejected the Israeli leader’s characterization of the unity pact with Hamas.

“No, Mr. Netanyahu, it is not a case of either peace with Hamas or with Israel. It is either your continuation of settlement activity, colonization and apartheid, or two sovereign and democratic states living side by side, in peace and security, on the 1967 border. You have chosen the first path, we have chosen the second.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 23 2014, 9:53 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Apr. 24 2014, 4:42 AM EDT