RAMALLAH - Palestinians will never recognise Israel as the ‘Jewish state,’ president Mahmud Abbas said Saturday, as his leadership convened to chart a course of action after Israel halted peace talks.

‘In 1993 we recognised Israel,’ Abbas told members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council, adding that the Palestinians should not be forced to go a step further and recognise Israel’s religious identity. Israel had made recognition of it as a ‘Jewish state’ a key demand in peace talks, which it withdrew from after Abbas’s PLO on Wednesday signed a reconciliation deal with the Islamist Hamas movement, which does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

A key Palestine Liberation Organisation body began on Saturday talks after Israel pulled out of US-sponsored peace negotiations in response to a Palestinian reconciliation deal with Hamas. The meeting of the PLO’s Central Council at its West Bank headquarters in Ramallah started shortly after 0800 GMT.

A member of the Islamist movement Hamas was attending the meeting and Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas was expected to deliver a speech during the opening session. The council had called the meeting over the crisis in negotiations, but will also discuss the deal struck Wednesday between Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, a key PLO faction.

Israel suspended the peace talks over the deal, saying it would have no dealings with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel and the United States had been hoping to extend the faltering peace talks beyond their April 29 deadline, but the efforts hit a wall last month when Israel refused to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners.

The Palestinians retaliated by applying to adhere to 15 international treaties and then Abbas, who also heads the PLO and Fatah, listed conditions for extending the talks beyond the deadline.

 Abbas said he would agree to an extension if Israel freezes settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, frees the prisoners and begins discussions on the future borders of a promised Palestinian state. Israel dismissed the conditions.

 In the unity deal penned this week, the rival Palestinian factions agreed to bury their differences and establish a ‘national consensus’ government under Abbas within weeks.

The move infuriated Israel, which said it would ‘not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terror organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel’. Israel also vowed unspecified ‘measures’ in response. On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US efforts to broker a peace deal had not failed, but were currently in a ‘holding period’ as Palestinians and Israelis decide their next move.

She noted Abbas had insisted that any government formed with Hamas backing would ‘represent his policies, and that includes recognition of Israel, commitment to non-violence, adherence to prior agreements and commitment to peaceful negotiations toward a two-state solution.’ Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah told Abbas on Friday that he would resign if the president deemed it necessary for the formation of the new unity government, official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas welcomed a Saturday speech by president Mahmud Abbas to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, with which it signed a reconciliation deal this week. ‘The speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognising (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations,’ Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas’ Gaza Strip prime minister Ismail Haniya, told AFP.

Abbas addressed the PLO’s Central Council, which had convened in Ramallah to chart a course of action after Israel suspended US-brokered peace talks in response to the Wednesday deal with Hamas. Under the agreement, Abbas would head an ‘independent government’ of technocrats, to be formed within five weeks. That new interim administration would be charged with holding parliamentary and presidential elections within six months of taking office. Israel said it would not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state and has always rejected peace talks.

But the Palestinian president stressed that the government would follow his principles of recognising Israel, rejecting violence and recognising international commitments. He also said it would deal only with internal domestic issues and not be involved in negotiations with Israel, which would remain the responsibility of the PLO. Naim concurred, saying ‘it is not the government’s mission to take care of political issues. ‘It has only three main missions: unifying the Palestinian organisations, preparing for elections and reconstructing Gaza.’

Despite being invited, Hamas delegates did not participate in the Saturday meeting. Aziz Dweik, the Hamas speaker of the Palestinian parliament, told AFP the group had stayed away because ‘we need a central council that is effective, not merely window dressing.’