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 its final borders with them by 2008 if they don't, 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' new militant Hamas rulers to disarm 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 made it clear that he is not prepared to negotiate with Abbas if Hamas doesn't change its violent ways.
Hamas wasn't immediately available for comment, but even the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and Israeli transfer payments hasn't been able to pressure it to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.
"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 our fate in the hands of our enemies," he added.
Olmert, who was a major force behind Israel's summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, has said he intends to pull Israeli settlers out of heavily populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank while fortifying major settlement blocs and holding on to the West Bank's Jordan River Valley. His original timetable had called for a pullback by 2010, but a top aide said last month that Israel planned to conclude the withdrawals by the end of U.S. President George W. Bush's second term in office, at the end of 2008.
Asked how long the withdrawal would take, Ramon judged that it would be possible to complete the process in 18 to 24 months.
"I would like to believe that by the end of 2008 we will be deployed on a line that will symbolize the final borders of the state of Israel and promise 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."
Palestinian lawmaker and negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, was a ready and willing negotiating partner.
"President Abu Mazen stands ready to immediately resume permanent status negotiations," Erekat said. "At the same time, we urge the (Hamas-led Palestinian) government to accept the two-state solution, but this should not stand in the way."