JERUSALEM – Israel's deputy prime minister on Saturday said Israel should assassinate Hamas' leadership, ignore the moderate Palestinian president and walk away from international peace efforts, the latest in a string of hard-line positions voiced by the newest member of the Cabinet.
The comments by Avigdor Lieberman came as the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, continued talks on forming a unity government. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah hopes the coalition deal will enable him to revive peace efforts with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought Lieberman into the government last month to shore up a shaky coalition government weakened by the summer war in Lebanon. The Moldova-born Lieberman enjoys tremendous support among Israel's large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
But since joining the government as minister of strategic affairs, Lieberman's inflammatory statements, such as Saturday's call for Hamas' leaders to be sent to "paradise," have raised fears that peace efforts will be frozen.
Olmert has tried distance himself from Lieberman, saying he remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"His comments are his own. They don't reflect Israeli policy," Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Saturday.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Lieberman said he believes the Palestinians are not interested in setting up their own state, but rather in destroying Israel. He said Israel must abandon past peace deals, known as the Oslo accords, and the road map.
"A continuation of Oslo, of the road map ... will lead us to another round of conflict, a much more bloody round, and in the end to an even deeper deadlock, and it threatens our future," he said.
He dismissed Abbas, elected president in 2005, as an ineffective leader who should be ignored, and said Israel must get tougher with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups, particularly their leaders.
"They ... have to disappear, to go to paradise, all of them, and there can't be any compromise," he said.
Israel has killed a series of Hamas leaders in targeted missile strikes in recent years, including the group's founder, but has not targeted members of the Hamas-led government elected 10 months ago.
The leader of the Hamas bloc in the Palestinian parliament, Mushir al-Masri, said any attack on the group's leaders would trigger immediate retaliation. The group has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings over the past six years.
Lieberman's party Yisrael Beiteinu, or "Israel Our Home," has 11 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament and provides a comfortable safety net to Olmert in parliament votes.
But the government expansion has been roundly criticized by Israeli doves and Arab activists, who equated Lieberman with far-right European politicians Joerg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Lieberman's recent calls to strip Israeli Arabs of citizenship and transfer them to Palestinian jurisdiction drew widespread condemnations.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide, said Lieberman's ideas "are a recipe for the continuation of bloodshed, violence, extremism and hatred between the two sides."
Abbas, meanwhile, was in Gaza on Saturday to push forward with negotiations with Hamas on forming a unity government. Negotiators said the sides were making progress and tackling the distribution of Cabinet ministries.
As part of the coalition talks, moderate Abbas, of Fatah, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas were to meet for a third consecutive day Saturday.
Both sides hope the new government, made up of independent experts acceptable to the rival parties, can bring about an end to a crippling international aid boycott imposed after Hamas was elected to power in January.
Israel and Western donor nations have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist or accept past peace deals. Hamas rejects the conditions. The emerging coalition government is expected to take a vague position toward Israel in hopes that the West will lift the sanctions.
Negotiators have agreed on a new prime minister — U.S.-educated Mohammed Shabir, the former president of the Islamic University in Gaza City — but differences are expected over the distribution of Cabinet portfolios. The treasury and the Interior Ministry, with its control over the security forces, are likely to be hotly contested.
Meanwhile, the outgoing Hamas government criticized the U.N. General Assembly's call for an end to military operations in the Gaza Strip.
The nonbinding resolution, passed in a special emergency session Friday, did not go far enough, said government spokesman Ghazi Hamad. "The ongoing Israeli attacks on the Palestinian civilians are war crimes that violate international law. Therefore, sanctions must imposed on Israel," he said.
Israel's U.N. ambassador also criticized the resolution, saying it was a "farce."
In Gaza, a 21-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli army fire in northern Gaza. The army said troops operating opened fire when they spotted an armed man a few yards away. Palestinian officials said he was a member of the security forces, wearing a uniform, but not carrying a weapon.
Also Saturday, a 16-year-old boy was shot dead by troops in a separate incident, and two men were wounded, security officials said. The Israeli military had no comment.
Palestinian medical officials and Hamas, meanwhile, said a 25-year-old Hamas militant died of wounds sustained in fighting with Israel on Nov. 2.