JERUSALEM (AP) – The Palestinians’ incoming prime minister suggested Hamas could one day make peace with Israel, but undercut his statement by saying his militant group wouldn’t disarm or recognize Israel unless it recognized a Palestinian state within boundaries the Israelis reject.
Israel dismissed the comments as doubletalk. Asked in an interview with CBS News aired Thursday if he could foresee a day when he would be invited to sign a peace agreement with Israel, Ismail Haniyeh replied, “Let’s hope so.”
But Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in a landslide in January, has rebuffed Israel’s conditions for talks, namely, that the group disarm and recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Haniyeh told CBS that Hamas wouldn’t meet those conditions for talks unless Israel “recognized a Palestinian state within the boundaries of Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
Israel, while accepting the principle of an independent Palestinian state, has said many times that it has no intention of returning to the borders it held before capturing those territories in the 1967 Mideast war. Haniyeh is considered a pragmatist, but he does not call the shots in the Palestinian government. Major Hamas decisions are taken in secret by a group of leaders inside and outside Gaza and the West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz recently said Israel considered Haniyeh to be a target for assassination if Hamas were to renew attacks it suspended more than a year ago after accepting a cease-fire.
The group killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombing attacks in the four years leading up to that truce. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev accused Hamas of spewing “double meanings, verbal gymnastics and word games” in the hope of softening the West’s image of the group as a terrorist organization.
The U.S. and Europe have threatened to withhold some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they inject into the cash-starved Palestinian Authority annually unless Hamas changed its ways.
There are three conditions for Hamas to receive international legitimacy: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept Mideast peacemaking, Regev said. “Nothing we have heard from any Hamas leader since the election indicates that they are going to accept these benchmarks,” he said.
In a published interview last month, Haniyeh said Hamas would establish “peace in stages” if Israel would withdraw to its boundaries before the 1967 war. But he immediately distanced himself from those remarks by saying Hamas was interested in a long-term truce with Israel, but did not seek peace with it.
Following Hamas’ election, Israel declared it would have nothing to do with a government that incorporated the militant group. And it has rejected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ offer to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads, saying Abbas is part and parcel of a terrorist government even though he doesn’t belong to Hamas and holds more moderate views.
In the meantime, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima Party is the clear front-runner ahead of March 28 Israeli elections, has taken the unusual step of declaring his plans for the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In widely publicized interviews to all major Israeli dailies last week, Olmert said that by 2010, he would dismantle most West Bank settlements while holding on to major settlement blocs where most Jewish settlers live. He also said he would build a controversial suburb that the Palestinians say would kill their dream of establishing east Jerusalem as a capital of a future state. Hamas intends to present its Cabinet to parliament for approval on Monday after failing to persuade any other party or independent lawmaker to join a coalition. A Hamas-only government would be likely to strengthen U.S. and European resolve to withhold desperately needed funding from the Palestinian Authority. Abbas must approve the new Cabinet, but is expected to ask Hamas to rework its lineup. However, since the Hamas-dominated parliament needs to approve the Cabinet, he cannot impose a government of his choosing.
The main sticking point in Palestinian coalition talks was Hamas’ refusal to recognize a 1988 unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence that included a recognition of Israel. Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil told reporters on Friday that no parties outside of Hamas have agreed to join a coalition government, though one small party still hasn’t indicated its intentions clearly. Bardawil would not say which Hamas leaders would staff the key foreign affairs, interior and finance ministry posts.