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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Vice Premier Haim Ramon said Friday that he expected Israel to hold elections in November, adding urgency to his call for an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement to be presented at a second international conference.
Noting that the United States would be holding elections in November, he told the Soref Symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that, "I believe Israel is probably going to have elections in November, as well."
Ramon is a close associate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is coming under increasing pressure to step aside amid a swirling corruption scandal.
The political timeline was also the focus on remarks the night before by the Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr, who in a talk outlining the challenges to be faced by the next president, said the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran had been flawed in its presentation but would not be revised.
"Until we have new data, new facts, we're not going to change the basic NIE, the classified version," Kerr said.
"We didn't do the job we should have in expressing points we were trying to make," he acknowledged, after the NIE came under a withering attack from some members of the symposium's audience. "Retrospectively, many of us would have thought maybe drafting it differently would have made sense."
The NIE began by estimating that to a high degree of confidence Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, a point seized on by the press and critics of the Bush administration's policy on Iran, despite the NIE noting in a footnote that the assessment did not refer to the uranium enrichment process, a major component of producing a nuclear weapon.
He justified the presentation by saying that the NIE had never been intended for publication, but once the decision was made to declassify, they decided not to rewrite so that members of Congress with the classified version couldn't accuse them of "spinning the story."
In light of the growing threat from Iran and other pockets of radical Islam, Ramon stressed that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was crucial to facilitating ties with moderate Arab states who were also opposed to the radicals.
Given the short political timeframe, and stressing that Palestinian and international support for a two-state solution has a time limit, Ramon said that showing progress from the ongoing negotiations was important.
He added that Israel needed to resolve the Palestinian conflict in order to facilitate peace with moderate Arab states in the face of the threat of extremist Islam.
Ramon said that differences between the two sides are minor, since "everyone in the area understands what will be at the end of the day," including having Jerusalem serve as a capital for two states.
He also said that should Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu be elected, as polls predict, it would be easier for him if such an agreement were already in place and he would be able to fall back on international pressure as a rationale for implementation.
At the same time, Ramon called for removing Hamas from power in Gaza, foreshadowing an Israeli invasion of the Strip predicted by many of the experts at the symposium.
"In Gaza, we have to bring an end to the victory march of radical Islam," he said, calling for Israel "to bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza."
That, he continued, would pave the way for the international community to take over the territory, which would eventually be handed over to the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
When challenged over whether this vision was compatible with making progress in peace talks, Ramon argued that it indeed was because Abbas wanted to see Hamas, which took Gaza in a coup last June, be removed more than Israel did.
Ramon expressed doubt, though, when it came to Israel's indirect peace talks with Syria. The talks, just announced by the PMO, showed the fissures in the Israeli leadership even among close associates like Olmert and Ramon.
"The chance for peace between Israel and Syria is very little," he said, pointing to Syria's long ties with extremist groups, its desire to retain power over Lebanon and the relative unimportance of what Israel can offer it. At the same time, he said that Israel is "not paying a price" for the talks, which ease tensions and reduce the chance of confrontation between the two countries.
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