JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres on Friday signaled that Israel is ready to negotiate with Hamas if the Islamic militant group renounces violence and disarms after next week’s Palestinian elections.
Peres spoke a day after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant, wounding 20 people. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, and Israel blamed the group’s backers in Iran and Syria for masterminding the attack.
“We have definitive proof that the financing of the terror attack … came directly from Iran, while the planning was carried out in Syria,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said after a late-night meeting with security officials. He said the findings would be shared with American and European officials.
Hamas, which itself has carried out dozens of suicide bombings but has largely observed a truce in the past year, is expected to make a strong showing in Wednesday’s Palestinian parliament election.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he hopes Hamas will moderate its positions once it joins parliament or even the Palestinian government. In this case, Israel and the international community will have to re-evaluate relations with the Islamic group they consider a terror organization.
Peres, expected to hold a senior government position after Israeli elections in March, ruled out talks with Hamas under current conditions. “We will not sit with anybody who comes to negotiations with a gun or a bomb,” he told Israel Radio.
But asked what would happen if the group disarms and renounces its call for Israel’s destruction, Peres left the door open to allowing it to participate in peace talks. “We are not fighting against a name. We are fighting against a situation,” he said. “If the situation changes, then what difference does a name make.”
In the past, Hamas, pledged to Israel’s destruction, has said he would not negotiate with Israel and would not disarm until Israel had withdrawn from what it considers occupied Palestinian land.
However, during the election campaign, Hamas candidate have adopted a more conciliatory tone, focusing on a clean-government agenda, and being evasive about whether the group would renounce violence.
Hamas officials were not immediately available to comment on Peres’ statements.
Peres, an 82-year-old Nobel peace laureate, recently left the dovish Labor Party to join the centrist Kadima bloc. Kadima was formed in November by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who broke away from his own hard-line Likud Party in an effort to free his hands to pursue a deal with the Palestinians.
Sharon suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4. Under Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the party continues to lead in opinion polls. New surveys released in two Israeli dailies Friday forecast Kadima winning 41-43 seats, putting the party in a strong position to lead the next government in the 120-seat parliament.
Raanan Gissin, a close aide to Sharon, said Peres’ comments echoed the prime minister’s opinions. He said Sharon was ready to consider talks with Hamas if it revokes its charter calling for Israel’s destruction and disarms.
“Shimon Peres’ remarks might have been phrased differently but they are the same as expressed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” he said.
Olmert said this week that he would be ready to restart peace talks if Abbas disarms militants. But Olmert made no direct mention of talking to Hamas. Hamas is expected to win at least one-third of the seats in the Palestinian parliament and will likely demand a formal ole in Palestinian decision-making. Israel has not said whether it would sever ties with the Palestinian altogether if Hamas sits in the government. The United States and the European Union have said they would have to re-evaluate the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to the Palestinians.
Abbas has said he hopes the election will help moderate Hamas. He condemned Thursday’s suicide bombing as an attempt to sabatoge the vote. Islamic Jihad is not running in the election, and internal unrest or fighting with Israel would weaken his already struggling Fatah party. Mofaz said Israel would tighen security around Nablus, the West Bank city where the bomber lived, and target Islamic Jihad militants in raids, but no major reprisals were planned.
Israel accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and has supported U.S.-backed efforts to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat, a concern that has grown since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”