Israel's Livni doubts peace deal by end of year

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni dampened hopes Thursday that Israel and the Palestinians could reach a peace accord by the year's end, telling reporters that while a time limit for the deal was important, the contents of the deal were more so, dpa reported.

Addressing Israel's Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, she said that while she was aware of international expectations that the sides would strike a deal, as they had pledged to strive for, by the end of the year, they also had to create a "responsible agreement."

This meant a detailed agreement, she said, adding that anything else would result in misunderstandings, leading to violence.

At the same time, she said there was an awareness that time was running out and that "stagnation is not an option for the Israeli government."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbs pledged at last November's Annapolis peace conference to try and reach a peace deal by the end of 2008.

Negotiations resumed, after a seven-year hiatus, at the turn of the year, with Livni and former Palestinian Premier Ahmed Qureia heading the Israeli and Palestinian teams.

The talks are being held amid a virtual media blackout, with the sides issuing conflicting reports, and unverified, on their progress. However, officials on both sides have begun intimating recently that the December 20908 deadline may have been optimistic.

Any agreement signed would also have to win the backing of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, which may not be easy, given the expected concessions both sides will have to make.

Ismail Haniya, the Gaza leader of Hamas, which rejects the peace talks and refuses to recognise Israel, said Thursday that Palestinians could only "liberate" Jerusalem through holy war.

"The liberation of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque can be achieved only through Jihad (holy war), blood, resistance and martyrdom and not through absurd peace talks," he told a rally in Gaza.

The fate of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem is one of the main subejcts up for discussion in the negotiations.

Livni would not be drawn Thursday into revealing any details of the ongoing talks, except to stress her support for a two-state solution, which would see Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side.

This, she said, meant not accomodating the Palestinian demand that refugees who fled what is now Israeli territory in the 1948-49 war, and their descendents, be allowed to return to the homes they abandoned.

"It undermines Israel's status as a Jewish state," she said, voicing the Israeli fear that allowing the refugees and their descendents back would lead to Israeli Jews being outnumbered by Palestinian Muslims within a generation or two.

Turning to other issues, she said Russia should not agree to a Syrian request to deploy missiles on its territory, since this could destabalise the Middle East.

"The deployment of long-range missiles is wrong," she said, reacting to reports that Russia could possibly agree to a suggestion by Damascus to deploy missiles in Syria.

According to Israeli media reports Thursday, the missiles in question are S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Iskander E-ballistic missiles, which have a range of of 280 kilometres and can carry a a 480-kilogramme warhead.

Admitting that Russia has "its own interests" in the Middle East, Livni added however that "no one has an interest in destabilizing the region."

Livni also called for tougher sanctions against Iran, saying those being applied to prevent Tehran from pursuing its nuclear programme, which she defined as an "international interest," were "not enough."

Livni, the front-runner to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in next month's contest to elect a new leader of the Kadima party, said she preferred a national unity government with opposition parties if she becomes prime minister.

Olmert, the focus of long-running corruption probes, has said he will step down once his Kadima party elects a new leader who forms a new government.

Polls show Kadima under Livni running neck-and-neck with the right-wing Likud party, each winning 28 of 120 Knesset seats, in elections.

However the party fares less well under Livni's main rival for the leadership, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, winning only 22 seats compared to 30 for the Likud.

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