Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is the only person Israel can hold peace negotiations with at this time, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Monday.
Abbas is "the only address" for negotiations, Peres told Army Radio.
"There is no one else. It is either Hamas or him. Since Hamas is out of the question, Abu Mazen is the only one that can be considered," he continued.
The statements by Peres, contradicted comments made Sunday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who on the eve of his meeting with US President George W. Bush, said that Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas was "too weak" to represent his nation.
"He is powerless. He is helpless. He's unable to even stop the minimal terror activities amongst the Palestinians
," said Olmert in an interview on CNN's Late Edition
. "So how can he represent that government in the most crucial, complex and sensitive negotiations, about which there are so many divisions within
the Palestinian community?" continued the prime minister.
Olmert also warned that Iran was much closer to mastering nuclear technology than previously thought.
"This technological threshold is nearer than we anticipated before. This is because they are already engaged very seriously in enrichment," Olmert told CNN in an interview recorded before he left Israel on Sunday for Washington.
The prime minister added that Iran was only a few months away from acquiring the technology needed for building a nuclear bomb.
"The technological threshold is very close. It can be measured in months rather than years," he said.
Meanwhile, Israel's ambassador to the US, Danny Ayalon, said Iran's nuclear program was expected to be a major issue on the agenda of Olmert's meeting with Bush, scheduled for Tuesday.
"The Iranian issue is becoming more urgent due to the acceleration of the enrichment process and due to Iran's defiance of the international community," Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post.
In his talks with Bush, Olmert is expected to present Israel's latest assessments regarding Iran's advancement in its nuclear program. Olmert will want to hear from Bush on the US's plans for dealing with Iran, and is expected to stress that Iran is not seen as an Israeli problem but rather as an issue concerning the entire international community.
The American approach favors pursuing the diplomatic channel through the UN Security Council in attempt to convince Russia and China to join - or at least not to oppose - a new resolution which will enable the imposition of sanctions on Iran under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.
If this avenue proves fruitless, the US is expected to go ahead with its "plan B," which consists of moving for sanctions against Iran without going through the UN Security Council. The administration would seek the participation of European nations as well as Japan, Canada and Australia in implementing such sanctions, without requesting other UN countries to join.
Israel is now trying to downplay the role of the Palestinian issue in Olmert's conversation with Bush and is stressing Iran as the major topic on the table. This change of emphasis is seen mainly as a result of current US reluctance to endorse Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.
In his interview with CNN, Olmert said that the plan, which diplomatic sources said would now be referred to as the "realignment plan" (after previously being called "second disengagement," "convergence" and "consolidation"), was blown out of proportion.
"I was elected prime minister of Israel on the sole agenda that I am prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians," Olmert said, adding that there was nothing he would want more than to reach an agreement.
Ayalon, who was part of the team preparing Olmert's talks in Washington, said that the realignment would be presented only as an alternative if all sides came to the conclusion there was no partner on the Palestinian side. According to Ayalon, the US and Israel would engage in a process of mutual consultations similar to that which preceded the Gaza disengagement, a plan which the US took seven months to endorse.
"I believe that when the time comes and the conditions are right, the administration will support the plan," Ayalon added.
Olmert was due to arrive in Washington late Sunday night and is to spend Monday in consultations with his advisers at the Blair House. He will end the day in a working dinner with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and will meet President Bush Tuesday afternoon.