Israel Sets Deadline for Peace Negotiation

JERUSALEM -- Israel will give the Palestinians until the end of the year to prove they are willing to negotiate a final peace deal, and will unilaterally set final borders with them by 2008 if they do not, a close associate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's said Tuesday.

Justice Minister Haim Ramon was the first Israeli official to set a deadline for the Palestinians' militant Hamas government to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.

The Palestinians' moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, has tried to persuade Israel to bypass Hamas and talk peace with him, but Olmert has said he would not negotiate with Abbas if Hamas did not change its violent ways.

"Through the end of this year, 2006, there will be honest attempts to talk to the other side," Ramon told Israel's Army Radio.

"If it becomes clear by the end of the year that we really have no partner, and the international community is also convinced of this, then we will take our fate into our own hands and not leave [it] in the hands of our enemies," he added.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, said talks could resume immediately under Abbas' leadership, without waiting for a change in Hamas' positions.

Olmert, a major force behind Israel's Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, has said he intends to pull Jewish settlers out of heavily populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank while fortifying major settlement blocs and retaining the West Bank's Jordan River Valley.

He has said Israel prefers to negotiate, but would act on its own if Hamas did not moderate.

Olmert never gave the Palestinians a deadline to head for the negotiating table, but has made it clear his patience was limited.

"If we wait a month, two months, three months, half a year and we don't see any change, then most likely we are going to move forward even without an agreement, without negotiations, in order to define the border lines which are acceptable for Israel," he told an international conference of mayors on Tuesday.

Olmert originally had set a 2010 deadline for the pullback, but a top aide said last month that Israel planned to conclude the process before the end of U.S. President George W. Bush's term in 2008.

Ramon judged it would not take more than 18 to 24 months.

"I would like to believe that by the end of 2008 we will be deployed on a line that will signify Israel's final borders and guarantee our existence here as a Jewish democratic state," he said.

The borders, he said, "will first and foremost include the settlement blocs and the regions that are necessary for our security."

Hamas accused Israel of posturing on talks. "Haim Ramon's assertion that Israel is ready for negotiations is no more than an attempt to trick the public," Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said. "They don't want negotiations, and even if there were negotiations, they would not give us our rights."

He repeated that Hamas was prepared to grant a long-term truce if Israel would agree to retreat to the lines it held before the 1967 Mideast war -- a condition Israel categorically rejects.