JERUSALEM, AP – Israel will give the Palestinians until the end of the year to prove they are willing to negotiate a final peace deal, and will unilaterally set its final borders by 2008 if they don’t, Israel’s justice minister said Wednesday.
The statement by Justice Minister Haim Ramon, a close associate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s, was the first by an Israeli official to set a deadline for the Hamas-led Palestinian government to disarm and recognize the Jewish state.
The Palestinians’ moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, has tried to persuade Israel to bypass Hamas and resume peace talks with him, but Olmert has said he wouldn’t negotiate with Abbas if Hamas didn’t change its violent ways.
“Through the end of this year, 2006, there will be honest attempts to talk to the other side,” Ramon told Israel’s Army Radio.
“If it becomes clear by the end of the year that we really have no partner, and the international community is also convinced of this, then we will take our fate into our own hands and not leave our fate in the hands of our enemies,” he added.
Hamas thus far has refused to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, despite intense international pressure and the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and Israeli transfer payments.
Hamas on Wednesday insisted Israel wasn’t really interested in negotiating.
“Haim Ramon’s assertion that Israel is ready for negotiations is no more than an attempt to trick the public,” Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said. “They don’t want negotiations, and even if there were negotiations, they would not give us our rights.”
He repeated that Hamas was prepared to grant a long-term truce if Israel would agree to retreat to the lines it held before the 1967 Mideast war — a condition Israel categorically rejects.
Olmert, who was a major force behind Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, has said he intends to pull Jewish settlers out of heavily populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank while fortifying major settlement blocs and retaining the West Bank’s Jordan River Valley.
Olmert has said Israel prefers to negotiate, but would act on its own if Hamas didn’t moderate. He never gave the Palestinians a deadline to head to the negotiating table, but has made it clear his patience was limited.
“If we wait a month, two months, three months, half a year and we don’t see any change, then most likely we are going to move forward even without an agreement, without negotiations, in order to define the border lines which are acceptable for Israel,” he told an international conference of mayors on Tuesday.
Olmert originally had set a 2010 deadline for the pullback deadline, but a top aide said last month that Israel planned to conclude the process before the end of President Bush’s term in 2008.
Ramon said it wouldn’t take more than 18 to 24 months.
“I would like to believe that by the end of 2008 we will be deployed on a line that will signify Israel’s final borders and guarantee our existence here as a Jewish democratic state,” he said.
The borders, he said, “will first and foremost include the settlement blocs and the regions that are necessary for our security.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, said negotiations could resume immediately under Abbas’ leadership, without waiting for a change in Hamas’ positions.
“President Abu Mazen stands ready to immediately resume permanent status negotiations,” Erekat said, referring to Abbas. “At the same time, we urge the (Hamas-led) government to accept the two-state solution, but this should not stand in the way.”
International Mideast peacemakers haven’t rejected the notion of unilateral Israeli moves in the West Bank, but say Israel can’t draw its final borders on its own.
Bush “has been very clear the final status is something to which parties have to agree,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a meeting of the peacemakers on Tuesday in New York.
Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said the Israeli government hasn’t set an official target for starting unilateral moves. But she added that prospects for negotiations were dim under a Hamas regime.
“Israel, of course, prefers a reciprocal process,” Livni told Israel’s Army Radio. But “we are looking at the Palestinian side, and … the chance of reaching an agreement there is close to nil.”
Hamas’ stand against Israel and the consequent cash cutoffs have rendered the Palestinian government unable to pay salaries for the past two months to workers who provide for one-third of the Palestinians.
With international agencies warning of a looming humanitarian crisis, international mediators agreed on Tuesday to skirt the Hamas government and funnel humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people through a special fund.
The so-called “Quartet” of peacemakers — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — did not say how much money or what kind of aid they would provide. Livni said the decision was agreeable to Israel.
Although the economic crisis has destabilized Hamas’ new government, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh did not comment on the Quartet’s decision, instead attacking the peacemakers for persisting with their demand that the militant group accommodate Israel.