Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Abbas
Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud AbbasIsrael News Photo: (archive)

The US State Department is working hard to exert damage control after a televised speech in which Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) announced he wants to sit down and make peace with the rival Hamas terrorist faction in Gaza.

Gaza-based Hamas leader and former PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh quickly responded with positive statements of his own, calling on Abbas in a statement late Thursday to immediately begin negotiations for a national unity government.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Thursday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Abbas and spoke with him about his sudden call for unity with Hamas.

McCormack insisted that Abbas has not changed his conditions for dialogue with the rival terrorist faction, which the State Department spokesman said included recognizing Fatah as the legitimate PA authority and stepping down from power in Gaza.

The Quartet (US, Russia, European Union and United Nations) froze funds to the PA when Hamas was elected to the government in a landslide victory in January 2006. The group of Western nations said that funding would resume only after Hamas agreed to recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, lay down its arms and uphold agreements signed by previous PA governments.

After Fatah was ousted from Gaza - when Hamas won the civil war in the region between the two factions in June 2007 - funding resumed to Abbas's group, which continues to rule PA-controlled areas of Judea and Samaria.

Negotiations between Israel and the PA, shepherded by the US, resumed on the condition that Fatah would not return to a government together with Hamas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has previously said that he would immediately halt talks with Abbas if he and Hamas move toward another unity government.  The two tried repeatedly to create a unity government after Hamas won the PA elections in 2006.