President Shimon Peres reiterated concerns on Thursday expressed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a day earlier that a misunderstanding with Syria could lead to war. The head of state spoke in a meeting with visiting Republican Congressmen. "The government and security establishment must strengthen the existing trust with Damascus - and this should be done through statements and proper deployment in the field," Peres said.
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He also said the main problem in Iraq was not the US presence but the disunity among Iraqis.
Regarding the Palestinians, Peres told the Congressmen he had the impression that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was interested in serious negotiations.
"We should speak to him without preconditions," Peres said. "Hamas is a fanatical religious organization that is impossible to hold dialogue with, and the world will not agree to fund its terrorist activities."
The delegation, whose visit is being sponsored by a division of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has met with much of the senior Israeli leadership since it arrived on Monday. A Democratic delegation is expected to arrive next week.
Some of the Republicans were first time visitors to the Jewish state, said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.
The delegation came, he said, to try to understand the complexities and the challenges of the region. "We have been a group of students listening to leaders sharing their views on the challenges of a two-state solution and the regional threat of Iran," Cantor said.
Before presenting his own views on these and related subjects, Peres gave his guests a feel-good speech about the US, saying that despite all the criticism, the US has acted "in a most responsible way. It served and fought for other people more than for itself. It went to war to liberate other people."
American, he said, was supposed to be pragmatic, but in his view the Americans "are sentimental in the most noble way."
Convinced that those Palestinians who are not under Hamas's influence are genuinely interested in peace, Peres said that although Israel would only negotiate only with Abbas, it would not interfere in internal Palestinian disputes, nor would it stop supplying water, electricity and access to Gaza. "Even if you're dissatisfied with the situation, you can't punish the people," he said.
But Peres opposed giving foreign aid to the Palestinian administration. It would be far more beneficial to use aid to create 150,000 jobs in the West Bank, he said. "If people have a source of income, they will have self-respect."
"Economics is a matter of relations," he asserted. "Diplomacy is borders. When you have good relations, it's easier to mark borders. It's a win-win situation."
Peres also shared his vision of a major tourist resort area on the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian banks of the Jordan River, saying that land values would rise enormously once the desert areas were built up, just as they had in Las Vegas.
To one delegate who quoted the Bible on political and religious leadership, Peres replied that when he had met with the pope, he had told him that in the past there had been efforts to separate Church and State. "Now", said Peres, "We have to separate all religious organizations from terror."