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(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was one of the early leaders of the Left's "peace camp," rejected one of its most basic tenets on Tuesday when he told a gathering of activists, "It's not the case that Israel has rejected partners for peace. It's more correct to understand that every time Israel sought a partner over the past year, there wasn't one available."
The audience, which represented about half of the 100 organizations that compose the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, sat quietly through his half-hour speech in Tel Aviv. It was his first meeting with activists from the left-wing "peace camp" since he took office last spring.
Only at the end did they express their anger when they discovered that there would be no dialogue between him and them.
One audience member, Asher Albo of Peace Now, said he was deeply frustrated to find that the politician he campaigned for and believed in was part of a government that he labeled "an obstacle to peace. I want him to fight terror but I also want him to fight for peace and I don't see it."
But Peretz told the activists that, "I feel like I am a man of peace no less than anyone else here." He added that he believes it is important to wake up every morning and search anew for a peace partner, even if at present it is hard to find one.
He spoke of his frustration upon taking office that all factions within the Palestinian Authority refused to take responsibility for the increase in the number of rockets that barraged his home city of Sderot last spring and summer.
He noted that additional rockets had fallen on Tuesday morning and injured a female soldier.
"I asked who was responsible," recalled Peretz in reference to his first weeks in office when he advocated restraint.
Each Palestinian group he turned to - Fatah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad - all stated that it was not their responsibility.
He learned the hard way, he told the audience, that one failure in the pursuit of peace is that "we have differentiated between authority and responsibility. Even a government you do not recognize is responsible for what happens in its territory. This is true not just in the South but in the North." In Lebanon, the government reigned in the cafes but left Hizbullah to rule over the rockets, said Peretz.
One of the central issues that has thrown the peace process into a quandary is that the attacks this summer were executed along two internationally recognized borders, said Peretz.
"It's a central question because it puts our path in question," he said.
Still, he added, he believed that at the end of the day, Israel's future would be secured through diplomatic means and a new dynamic for negotiations would be found.
He said he believed that Israel should talk with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and called for such a dialogue to start immediately even as he urged caution when it came to the prospect of a national unity government with Fatah and Hamas.
He also defended the army's decision to close the passages between Gaza and Israel.
One activist, Sari Bashi, complained that in the past year, the Karni passage was closed for 160 days and the Rafah passage was closed for 127 days, so that for a third of the year, Gaza was closed off from the world.
Peretz responded by stating: "I personally check daily the reasons why the Karni crossing is closed." Given the impact that closing the Gaza crossing has on the Palestinians living in Gaza, he questioned why Palestinian terrorists would engage in acts that force the IDF to shut the passages for security reasons.
"Then I answer my own question - the terror organizations are interested in creating a humanitarian crisis. This is not in their interest and it is not in the interest of Israel's security," he said.
Peretz added that in spite of the threats, he does his best to keep the passages open.
Peretz also told the audience he would create a procedure by which their complaints against the army's treatment of Palestinians could be heard and addressed.
"I see myself as a partner and a leader in the creation of any process that will make it easier for the Palestinians to live, not just from my personal outlook, but also as a security matter," he said.
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