A day after sparking a political storm when he described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a brave partner for peace and called for resumption of peace talks, President Shimon Peres continued with his controversial line on Monday, this time speaking about Hamas.
During a New Year's event for Israel's Christian leaders at the President's Residence on Monday, Peres said he was vehemently opposed to negotiating with Hamas as long as it rejected three conditions outlined by the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators: ending terrorist activity, accepting previous agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians, and recognizing Israel.
"We ask about Hamas, why don't we talk to Hamas? We are ready to talk with Hamas, but they are unwilling. They have to accept the Quartet terms. They are not our terms; they are the international community's. They have to decide whether they want peace or fire," Peres said.
"There is the Palestinian Authority, with which we have signed agreements, and there is a separate organization in Gaza and that is Hamas. They have to decide whether they want to build or open fire. We have no interest in perpetuating suffering in Gaza. Israel would be happy to see Gaza flourish."
Peres, who was recently invited to Brussels as an official guest of the European Union and will be heading there in March, also said, "Peace is not just a necessity, it is a biblical commandment from both the Old and New Testaments."
"Peace is not just a dream or a distant aspiration, it is an achievement that can materialize, and we must strive for it with honesty and courage,” Peres said. “The start of peace in the Middle East is already here — we have peace with Egypt that we appreciate very much, and we have a peace deal with Jordan, and we have begun the process with the Palestinians. We are not giving up and we are on the path to peace. We must continue our efforts to advance peace."
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who has been appointed to head the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint election campaign, criticized the president's remarks Monday, saying, "I think that Peres expressed his well-known views. I will try to speak about him with respect, but I was disturbed by two things: the sensitive timing [of his remarks] at the height of an election process, and the fact that we heard Abbas give a hateful anti-Israel speech at the U.N. podium several weeks ago, in which he blamed Israel for everything in the world from war crimes to ethnic cleansing."
Speaking to Channel 10's news website, Sa'ar said, "It seems to me that if he had included a little criticism amid the sea of compliments, things could have been received a little differently."
In keeping with his policy following Peres' remarks on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to respond directly to the comments. The Prime Minister's Office did not express concern over Peres' remarks. According to one high-ranking official, "This is Israel's well-known stance, and the president simply repeated it. There is nothing new here. Obviously, if Hamas were to agree to these terms, it would no longer be Hamas."
Meanwhile, Israel is gearing up for Hamas' likely appeal to the court in Brussels, seeking to overturn the European Union decision to label it a terrorist organization. Israel's Foreign Ministry is making preparations to try to thwart the appeal, which is funded by several Arab states. The purpose of the appeal will be to make a distinction between Hamas' military wing and its political leadership, thus facilitating the movement of funds and individuals affiliated with Hamas.