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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas upon his return from Washington, later this month, Vice Premier designate Shimon Peres told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Peres also said that the new administration had not ruled out the possibility of reaching a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
Peres spoke to the Post ahead of Independence Day in a year marking the development of the Negev and the Galilee, an effort spearheaded by his ministry. Olmert decided Monday to keep Peres on as vice premier, but elevated Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to hold the position of vice prime minister alongside him.
"I think that Olmert will meet with [Abbas] after the establishment of the government - I think maybe after his visit to the United States - because we said that we are going to try for a while to reach a bilateral agreement," Peres said.
During a visit to Europe last week, Abbas told reporters he would soon approach Israeli leaders about resuming peace talks in an international peace summit. In the past, Olmert has said that he would talk with Abbas but would not negotiate with him over the Hamas-led Palestinian Legislative Council.
Sources in Abbas's office said on Monday night that no date had been set for a meeting with Olmert. However, the sources added that Abbas was ready to meet with Olmert as soon as possible to discuss ways of reviving the peace process on the basis of the road map.
Any agreement would have to be made with Abbas, rather than Hamas, Peres stressed. "The Palestinians are divided," he added. "Their division is a fact of life. I do not see why we have to push all of them to Hamas, and so if we can work with Abu Mazen [Abbas] let's work with him. Why not? He is an honorable man. He means peace."
Peres predicted that the Hamas government would soon crumble, as it was already unable to pay salaries and otherwise function as a government. He was unconcerned that European overtures and talk of aid to the Palestinians would keep Hamas in business.
"I do not see how they are going to do it," he said of international funding of a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas. "[The parliaments will say] you are feeding military organizations that are fighting peace and are dangerous in the sense that they are terrorists."
Peres was also optimistic that the international community would endorse Israel's setting of unilateral borders "if they will be convinced that we tried all other ways." That was one reason, he said, why it was important to try to reach a negotiated solution first.
When it came to Hamas, Peres expressed little hope. "Hamas cannot be changed," he said, suggesting that the organization "can be converted."
"People ask me, 'When will Hamas change?' I answer, 'when a religious person will become secular,'" he said. And so far, he concluded, Hamas had made no sign of undergoing a "conversion," despite toning down some of its rhetoric since its election this winter.
On Iran, Peres suggested that Israel "be modest and not jump the gun." He called Iran "a world problem and I think the world has to handle it," saying that Israel should let the US and other responsible partners take the lead when it came to a nuclear threat from Iran.
If Israel did not, he warned, the danger existed that the problem could be portrayed as an "Iranian-Israeli conflict, which it is not." He added, "We are not an enemy of Iran."
The full interview with Peres will appear in Friday's Post.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.
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