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AMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — After months of wavering, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a decisive step Monday toward reconciliation with the Islamic militant group Hamas, a move Israel promptly warned would close the door to any future peace talks.

In a deal brokered by Qatar, Abbas will head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the Palestinian territories in the coming months. The agreement appeared to bring reconciliation — key to any statehood ambitions — within reach for the first time since the two sides set up rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007.

Monday’s deal, signed in the Qatari capital of Doha by Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, put an end to recent efforts by the international community to revive long-stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Abbas appears to have concluded that he has a better chance of repairing relations with Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group, than reaching an agreement with Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu quickly condemned the Doha deal. “It’s either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. You can’t have them both,” he said in a warning to Abbas, who has enjoyed broad international support.

In moving closer to Hamas, Abbas risks losing some of that backing and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid.

Qatar, awash with cash from vast oil and gas reserves, assured the Palestinians that it would help limit any political and financial damages, according to Palestinian officials close to the talks.

Whether the Palestinian Authority loses any of the roughly $1 billion in foreign aid it received each year may partly depend on the interim government’s political platform and Hamas’ willingness to stay in the background.

The new government is to be made up of politically independent experts, according to the Doha agreement. If headed by Abbas, devoid of Hamas members and run according to his political principles, it could try to make a case to be accepted by the West. Abbas aides said they were optimistic they could win international recognition.

The Quartet of international Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — has said it would deal with any Palestinian government that renounces violence, recognizes Israel and supports a negotiated peace deal. Abbas has embraced these principles, while Hamas rejects them.

Top Abbas aides Nabil Shaath and Azzam al-Ahmed said they are confident the new government will be based on the Quartet principles. In any case, they said, the interim government’s focus will be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections, not to negotiate with Israel. Such elections won’t be held in May, as initially envisioned, they said, but could take place several months later.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was seeking more information about what was agreed, and that reconciliation was an internal matter for Palestinians.

“What matters to us are the principles that guide a Palestinian government going forward, in order for them to be able to play a constructive role for peace and building an independent state,” Nuland said.

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence,” she said. “It must recognize the state of Israel. And it must accept the previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the road map. So those are our expectations.”

Nuland declined to say if the Fatah-Hamas arrangement would advance or hurt peace talks with Israel. She also appeared hesitant to address Netanyahu’s warning to Abbas that the Palestinians can have “peace with Hamas or peace with Israel.”

“We maintain that both of these parties ought to stay committed to this process,” Nuland told reporters.

The European Union offered qualified support Monday, saying it considers Palestinian reconciliation and elections as important steps toward Mideast peace. The EU, a major financial backer of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, “looks forward to continuing its support,” provided the new government meets the Quartet demands, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Last year, Abbas and Mashaal struck a reconciliation deal that later became bogged down in disagreement over who would head an interim government. Hamas strongly opposed Abbas’ initial choice of Salam Fayyad, the head of his Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad, an economist who is widely respected in the West, said Monday he welcomed the new deal even though it would cost him a job he has held since 2007.

The breakthrough came after two days of meetings between Abbas and Mashaal, hosted by Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. After the signing, Abbas said that “we promise our people to implement this agreement as soon as possible.”

Mashaal also said he was serious “about healing the wounds ... to reunite our people on the foundation of a political partnership, in order to devote our effort to resisting the (Israeli) occupation.”

Abbas and Hamas have had bitter ideological differences, with Abbas pursuing a deal with Israel and the violently anti-Israel Hamas dismissing such talks as a waste of time. The rift deepened with Hamas’ 2007 takeover of Gaza, which left Abbas with only the West Bank.

However, some of those differences seem to have narrowed in recent months.

Abbas has lost faith in reaching a deal, at least with Netanyahu. Low-level Israeli-Palestinian border talks last month — an attempt by the international community to revive formal negotiations after more than three years of paralysis — only highlighted the vast gaps.

The Palestinians want the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, with minor border adjustments, for their state. Israel’s outline of a border deal, presented last month, meant it wants to keep east Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank, not enough concessions to keep Abbas engaged.

Mashaal, meanwhile, has been prodding Hamas toward a more pragmatic stance that is closer to that of the group’s parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, and has urged Hamas to moderate and reconcile with Abbas.

However, Mashaal represents Hamas in exile and appears to have had differences with the movement’s more hardline leadership in Gaza, which stands to lose influence and jobs in a reconciliation deal. Some of the Gaza leaders have resisted Mashaal’s push for unity and moving closer to the Brotherhood, Hamas officials have said privately.

It remains unclear how much resistance Mashaal will now face from the Gaza leaders of the movement. One of the biggest challenges of reconciliation — how to blend the two sides’ separate security forces — remains unresolved.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, said he welcomed the agreement. Initial reports that a Hamas delegation from Gaza went to Doha were incorrect. The delegation headed to Cairo.

The agreement calls for rebuilding Gaza, which has been largely cut off from the world as part of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade imposed after the Hamas takeover. The blockade was eased in the past year, but not enough to revive the Gaza economy, including the vital construction industry, and many large-scale projects remain on hold.

Qatar is willing to spend as much as $10 billion to help repair the damage of the rift, including settling mutual grievances by supporters of Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement who at the height of tensions fought bloody street battles, the Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed-door meetings with reporters. The figure could not be confirmed independently.

Al-Ahmed and Shaath, the Abbas aides, said they expect the composition of the new government to be announced during a Feb. 18 meeting of Palestinian political factions in Cairo.

They said Abbas would set an election date 90 days after the Central Elections Commissions has updated voter records in Gaza, a process that could take several weeks. The initial reconciliation pact envisioned elections in May, but this is no longer realistic, the aides said. Shaath said he believes the voting could take place by July.

Anti-regime protesters chant slogans and flash the victory sign as they march during a demonstration Tuesday at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria “absolutely rejects” any plans to send Arab troops into the country, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, even as the death toll mounts from 10 months of violent conflict.

Thousands of people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown on the anti-Assad revolt, which has turned increasingly militarized in recent months with a growing risk of civil war. The U.N. says about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks, on top of an earlier estimate of more than 5,000 killed since March.

The leader of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was quoted Sunday as saying Arab troops should be sent to Syria to stop the deadly violence — the first statements by an Arab leader calling for the deployment of troops inside Syria.

Qatar, which once had close relations with Damascus, has been a harsh critic of President Bashar Assad’s crackdown. The wealthy Gulf state withdrew its ambassador to Syria in the summer to protest the killings. Since the Arab Spring began more than a year ago, Qatar has taken an aggressive role, raising its influence in the region.

The government says terrorists are behind the uprising — not reform-seekers — and that armed gangs are acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.

Syria’s powerful ally Russia said Wednesday it would block any attempt by the West to secure U.N. support for the use of force against the regime in Damascus, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia’s draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria that circulated Monday was aimed at making it explicitly clear that nothing could justify a foreign military interference.

The Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began in March because a strong opposition from Russia and China. In October, they vetoed a West European draft resolution, backed by the U.S., that condemned Assad’s attacks and threatened sanctions.

Lavrov said Russia would reject any attempts at securing a U.N. sanction for a military interference in Syrian affairs.

“If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening,” he said. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience, they won’t get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council.”

A recent visit by the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Iran is supplying weapons to aid Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian people, a senior Obama administration official said Tuesday.

While the U.S. has long believed Iran is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent in Syria, the official says the visit by Quds Force Commander Ghassem Soleimani provides a concrete example of direct high-level cooperation between Iran and Syria.

The administration’s assertion comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. Under the threat of increased U.S. sanctions, Iran has said it could block the strategic Strait of Hormuz; the Obama administration says it has warned Iran against taking such actions.

Iran has been Syria’s closest ally for decades, and the Islamic Republic has been a vocal supporter of Assad since the uprising against his regime began in March.

Moroccans and Syrian expatriates gesture as they hold a Syrian during a protest in solidarity with the Syrian people, in Rabat Morocco, outside the Moroccan foreign ministry as the Arab League foreign ministers meet in Rabat, Morocco on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco — The Arab League confirmed the suspension of Syria from the organization on Wednesday and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions.

The suspension — first announced by the Arab League on Saturday and confirmed during the meeting — is a surprisingly harsh and highly unusual move for a member of Syria’s standing.

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim told reporters following the daylong meeting in Rabat, Morocco, that Syria is being offered the chance to end the violence against civilians and implement a peace plan that the Arab League outlined on Nov. 2. The U.N. estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria’s 8-month-old uprising.

“The Syrian government has to sign the protocol sent by the Arab League and end all violence against demonstrators,” he said, adding that it has three days. “Economic sanctions are certainly possible, if the Syrian government does not respond. But we are conscious that such sanctions would touch the Syrian people.”

The protocol calls for an observer mission of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, calling for the regime to halt its attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

The protocol did not specifically say if Syria’s suspension from the organization has remained in force, but an official from the Moroccan Foreign Ministry confirmed that is the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.

The Arab League also demanded the withdrawal of Syria’s representative to the organization.

“In the light of insulting and undiplomatic words of the permanent Syrian representative, the Arab League is asking the Syrian government to withdraw its representative,” said the League statement, without identifying the behavior in question.

The Arab League has rarely taken decisive actions to deal with crises in the Arab world out of reluctance to criticize fellow governments. But in this case, several members have described their forceful engagement in the Syrian situation as a way of staving off the kind of foreign intervention that took place in Libya earlier this year. NATO’s bombing campaign against Libya took place less than a month after it was suspended by the Arab League on Feb. 22.

“Arab leaders don’t have a legacy of commenting and interfering in domestic events in Arab countries, so now this is a turning point for the Arab League,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a Cairo-based commentator on Arab affairs.

“Arab governments are being exposed to pressure from their public, from the Syrian people and on the international level, so the Arab League has to do something — they can’t keep staying on the sidelines,” he added.

Even Turkey, which once had close ties with Syria, has expressed increasing concern over the situation across the border.

“We denounce the mass murder of the Syrian people,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Morocco for a meeting on Arab-Turkish ties. “It is all of our responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria.”

Bin Jassim of Qatar declined to give any details about possible economic sanctions against Syria, if it refuses the observer mission. But the Arab news channel al-Arabiya suggested they would likely take place in coordination with Turkey and include the energy sector.

Its suspension from the Arab League has enraged Syria, which considers itself a bastion of Arab nationalism. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem boycotted Wednesday’s meeting.

The threat of Arab sanctions comes on top of rising threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States as well leaving Syria even more isolated.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby confirmed that the organization has been in touch with the Syrian opposition and said it has identified 16 regions in particular that needed to be monitored.

“We have spoken with the Syrian opposition on all topics, but they never requested weapons,” he added.

Printed on Thursday, November 17, 2011 as: Arab League acknowledges Syria's suspension