GAZA CITY — Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas on Wednesday announced a reconciliation deal to end their seven-year schism, in a further blow to U.S.-led efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Leaders of the groups said they will form a unity government within five weeks, solicit a vote of confidence from the Palestinian parliament, then schedule elections in six months.
"This is good news to tell our people: The era of division is over," Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas, declared at a news conference here.
The militant Islamist Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, have failed repeatedly to overcome differences. Because of that history, the announcement was greeted with wide skepticism.
If a deal is signed, it could halt the teetering Israeli Palestinian talks and create obstacles to even minimal dealings between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist group. The U.S. government says it won't deal with any government that includes Hamas unless the group shifts its position by recognizing Israel, forswearing violence and adhering to Palestinian agreements with Israel.
The Palestinian factions have been divided since 2007, when Hamas seized control of Gaza, a year after it won elections there.
The State Department expressed concern Wednesday about the timing and nature of the deal, which came within days of the Obama administration's April 29 deadline for reaching a peace accord.
"The timing was troubling, and we were certainly disappointed in the announcement," said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the move raised questions about the commitment of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. After the announcement he canceled a planned meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
"Does he want peace with Hamas, or peace with Israel?" Netanyahu asked. "You can have one but not the other."
Despite their wide ideological differences, Hamas and Fatah have incentives for reaching a deal, or at least for continuing negotiations. Residents of Gaza and the West Bank are unhappy with both factions. Arab aid to Hamas has fallen off since the "Arab Spring" revolts, and Egypt's anti-Islamist government has been clamping down on the smuggling of goods into the impoverished zone, sharpening Gazan dissatisfaction with the government.
For Abbas, a unity deal could divert attention from the collapsing peace talks and his risky move to seek membership in international organizations as a way of gaining diplomatic leverage with Israel.
"He could be trying to change the subject," said Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "This could be a way of managing the end of negotiations."
Abbas also may view the move as a way to put pressure Israel to make concessions to keep the peace process alive, some analysts said. Others suggested that he might be looking for a way to leave office on a defiant note, amid popular acclaim, after years of frustration.
Approval of a unity deal, however, carries big risks. Palestinian officials said they intend to run the government with apolitical "technocrats," a move apparently aimed at deflecting objections from the United States and other donors over a role for Hamas.
It also is unclear whether the factions could come up with ministers acceptable to the Obama administration and Congress, without a loss of U.S. funding and diplomatic support. The move also could offer Netanyahu an easy way to let peace talks die, and to blame the Palestinians for their collapse.
At the least, the formation of a unity government would add to the burden on Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who could face a major challenge simply trying to sustain basic relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Several U.S. laws set tight guidelines for U.S. aid to the Palestinians, and Kerry might find it difficult to prevent Congress from cutting off assistance.
Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a pro-peace advocacy group, said that even if negotiations toward on final deal collapse, the two sides must continue to negotiate on other important day to day issues. "These are two peoples who live in the same space," he said. "They must communicate."