Israel broke off peace talks with the Palestinians on Thursday, saying that a planned reconciliation between the moderate faction participating in the talks and the militant Islamist group Hamas made negotiation impossible.
The rupture appeared to be the final blow to an ambitious U.S.-sponsored effort to frame a peace treaty this year. Israeli-Palestinian talks that began last summer under heavy American pressure were already sputtering and were due to expire next week.
The negotiations, always a long shot, marked the first deep involvement by the Obama administration to address the intractable conflict. The direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, often with a U.S. mediator present, had been the most sustained and substantive such discussions in more than five years.
Palestinian leaders said the proposed unified government should not be a bar to further talks with Israel, and Washington insisted Thursday that the troubled peace effort is not dead. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to rule out all discussion with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas in any capacity.
"I think the pact with Hamas kills peace," Netanyahu said in an interview with NBC. "If it moves forward, it means peace moves backward."
The Iranian-backed Hamas does not recognize Israel as a legitimate country, and Israel accuses the group of harboring extremists who carry out attacks on Israel from inside the Gaza Strip, a territory that Hamas rules.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party said Wednesday it will reunite with Hamas, ending a seven-year split. An agreement signed in Gaza gives Abbas five weeks to form a unified government.
It was not clear how Hamas would be integrated into the Fatah leadership, or whether the deal will hold. Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke to Abbas on Thursday, after a call with Netanyahu on Wednesday. The State Department gave few details, but it said Kerry expressed disapproval of the reconciliation plan.
"We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities for peace," Kerry said in brief remarks at the State Department. "We believe it is the only way to go. But right now, obviously, it's at a very difficult point and the leaders themselves have to make decisions. It's up to them."