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(photo credit: AP)
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Saturday that if Hamas were to recognize Israel and agree to abide by agreements previously accepted by the Palestinian Authority, he would urge the government to negotiate directly with Hamas.
Speaking in a Rosh Hashana interview with Israel Radio Saturday, Peretz said that if Hamas met these conditions, a Palestinian unity government was not needed as a prerequisite to talks.
Peretz added that it was necessary to "wait and see what the unity government's basic priniciples and orientation will be."
"What difference does it make what the government is called? If Hamas were to recognize Israel's right to exist, I would recommend direct talks with Hamas," Peretz said.
The defense minister said a Palestinian unity government should be judged on the basis of whether it intends to take the path of negotiations with Israel, or continue on the path of terrorism.
"If the unity government continues to declare its intent to destroy the State of Israel, we can't recognize it. If the unity government does not announce immediately the return of Gilad Shalit, we can't recognize it. If the Kassams don't stop, we'll have to continue to take military action to stop them," Peretz said.
On Friday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said that he would not head a government that recognized Israel.
For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here
In a mosque sermon in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya on Friday, Haniyeh laid out his group's position. "I personally will not head any government that recognizes Israel," said Haniyeh.
US, EU insist Hamas conditions not watered down
Haniyeh said Hamas was ready to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem and to honor a long-term truce with Israel. "We support establishing a Palestinian state in the land of 1967 at this stage, but in return for a cease-fire, not recognition," Haniyeh said.
Earlier Friday, Haniyeh's political adviser Ahmed Yousef said that a Palestinian Authority unity government would not be established if it obligated Hamas to recognize Israel.
The remarks by Haniyeh and his political adviser contradicted PA President Mahmoud Abbas's statement made to the UN General Assembly on Thursday that the planned national unity government would recognize Israel.
Yousef said instead of recognizing Israel, Hamas was prepared to agree to a "long-term truce for five or 10 years, until the occupation withdraws."
Yousef said renouncing violence was a clause of the agreement underlying the planned coalition government. He was unclear on what Hamas would do if coalition talks break down.
Abbas had told the assembly's annual ministerial meeting that he had recently sought to establish a government of national unity "that is consistent with international and Arab legitimacy and that responds to the demands of the key parties promoting Mideast peace - recognition, ending violence and honoring past agreements.
"I would like to reaffirm that any future Palestinian government will commit to all the agreements that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority have committed to," he said.
These include the letters of mutual recognition exchanged on Sept. 9, 1993, by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat, whom Abbas called "the two great late leaders."
"These letters contain mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, renunciation of violence, and commitment to negotiations as the path towards reaching a permanent solution that will lead to the establishment of the independent state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel," Abbas said.
Officials from both Fatah and Hamas said privately Friday that it wasn't clear whether Abbas' speech was meant to solicit international support for the planned government, or a new condition to forming a coalition with Hamas.
A spokesman for the Hamas-led government, Ghazi Hamad, said the group would ask Abbas to clarify his remarks after he returns from his trip.
Abbas was still in New York on Friday, and couldn't be immediately reached for comment on Yousef's remarks. A close adviser, Nabil Amr, clarified that the Palestinian president would not ask Hamas to explicitly recognize Israel, but to abide by Palestine Liberation Organization agreements that recognize the Jewish state.
"We expect Hamas to agree to this," Amr said.
Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin reiterated Israel's demand that any Palestinian government yield to the demands the international community has imposed.
AP contributed to this report