WASHINGTON – Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres (search), who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in turning over control of most of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat's Palestinians, said Monday that Israel has no moral claim to the land or to Gaza and must give up every inch of the territories.
Peres, in a speech after meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search), said "time is short" — no more than four months — for Israel to come to terms with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search).
"The opening is not for a long time," he said at a dinner sponsored by the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, a dovish private group.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has proposed a withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, Peres said the offer of his long-term political foe was inadequate and would only perpetuate conflict with the Palestinians.
Israel must give up all of the land that it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, he said. "If you keep 10 percent of the land you keep 100 percent of the conflict," Peres said.
His prescription for a pullback includes gradual withdrawal from the West Bank after Israel gives up all of Gaza to the Palestinians. "It is not a political decision, it is a moral decision," Peres said.
He said Israel should provide the Palestinians with a state that is viable and contiguous.
"I think Sharon is having a hard time making up his mind," Peres said. "It won't be simple. It won't be easy."
If Israel does not follow through with a total withdrawal, "catastrophe is waiting in the corner," he said.
Earlier, at a news conference in the doorway of the State Department, Peres flashed his long-standing optimism that the Palestinians wanted peace with Israel.
Also, he said, "good news" was emerging all over the world, with Libya pledging to end its nuclear weapons program and Cyprus on a path to settle its 30-year division.
But mostly, Peres was cheered by Sharon's partial pullback proposal while insisting it was far from enough to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians.
Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, along with Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for the Oslo accords that gave the Palestinians wider control of their lives and of parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
Six years later, the accord crumbled into the violence of a Palestinian uprising that targeted Israelis both in the territories and in Israeli itself and took the lives of hundreds of people on both side as Israel fought back fiercely.
Peres became the focus of criticism as a symbol of a process many Israelis believe allowed the Palestinians to gain strength and weapons for their battle against the Jewish state.
Still, now over 80, Peres continues to push for far-reaching Israeli concessions as a pathway to a Palestinian state that he and President Bush say can coexist peaceably with Israel.
Even with peacemaking virtually nonexistent now, Peres said there is "a new reality in the Middle East and Sharon has to face it like everyone else."
"We shouldn't be blind," he said of Israelis who remain skeptical of Israel giving up land and the Palestinians setting up a state on it.
Most Palestinians want to live in peace with Israel, he said. But Palestinian leaders must decide "which camp they want to live in," the one of terror or the one of counter-terror.
Three U.S. officials met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders last week in the Middle East and will report Friday to Powell and Saturday to Bush on their findings.
The White House and State Department gave no public account of the talks or what the officials found in the region. Nor did they offer any account of Peres' meetings with Powell and Rice.