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(photo credit: AP [file])
Alluding to statements emerging from the Fatah conference in Bethlehem about "armed struggle," President Shimon Peres reminded Palestinian leaders that they had committed themselves to the path of peace.
He also said the greatest dangers confronting the world today are the spread of nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles that deliver them. The president made his remarks before a Republican congressional delegation at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday.
Led by Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, the 25-member group, accompanied by spouses and other family members, is one of the largest delegations of Republican's from the House of Representatives to come to Israel.
Together with another group of Democrats due to arrive next week, they represent 15 percent of the House, Cantor said.
They will spend their tim examining the US-Israel relationship and studying firsthand the situation on the ground.
Through meetings with Israeli dignitaries, participants in the two delegations are expected to gain a better understanding of how Israelis assess their relationship with Washington, prospects for peace in the Middle East, the true nature of the security situation, political trends and the state of the economy.
Both visits are sponsored by the America Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with AIPAC.
The Republicans are said to be concerned about the Obama administration's calls for a freeze on settlement activity, including natural growth, and the right of Jews to live anywhere in Jerusalem, Cantor told The Jerusalem Post. He emphasized that the priority of both Israel and the United States should be "to do everything to stop the nuclearization of Iran."
When introducing the group to Peres, Cantor said: "We are here to reconfirm the message that the US Congress stands staunchly behind Israel in its struggle and we are here to strengthen the US-Israel relationship."
In a question and answer session with the Republicans, Peres repeatedly reiterated Israel's commitment to peace. If peace is not attained, he warned, "The Middle East will become nuclear. It will be a point of no return."
The Iranians must be stopped, he insisted, and others in the region must also be prevented from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Peres outlined what he said were the two different approaches to peace. One was an comprehensive plan in which an agreement would be reached between Israel, the Palestinians and other nations in the region to once and for all bring the conflict to an end. The other approach would be to see what can be done immediately - and to do it - and then to go back and iron out what remained to be done.
Responding to a question about the Fatah conference in Bethlehem, Peres noted that the Palestinian people are divided politically and geographically. Because of this the issue of permanent borders remains in limbo.
"It's not in our hands," said Peres, adding that the Palestinian Authority does not have a sufficiently strong security force to prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. We are ready to give them land, but not without security," he said.
From what has already emerged at the Fatah assembly, Peres said he concluded that the gathering was basically about who would be more extreme. He cautioned the Palestinians not to say things that they would regret the following day.
Alluding to some of the statements that had been made about Fatah's continued support for armed struggle, Peres said the Palestinians had previously agreed that all problems had to be solved peacefully. If they go back on that, it would demonstrate that their word cannot be respected, "it will be detrimental to their destiny," said Peres.
As for the rift between Fatah and Hamas, Peres made it clear that Israel cannot openly take sides. "If we interfere, it will be taken as bad blood," he said.
On the subject of Jerusalem, Peres said that although the city seems fairly calm on the surface and Jews, Christians and Muslims practice their traditions freely, the situation is nonetheless potentially explosive.