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The 'Elders' arrive in Israel to boost Mideast peace

The respected delegation, headed by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, irked Israel by initially planning to meet Hamas in Gaza. That trip has been delayed.

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On Wednesday, the Elders are scheduled to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres before going to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. They were also planning to visit the Kalandiya refugee camp – inside Jerusalem boundaries – and are to attend an iftar, which marks the end of each day's fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

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Israel says Elders shouldn't visit Hamas

Israeli officials said that while they welcome the Elders, the group was making a mistake by having planned to visit the Gaza Strip and meet with Hamas officials there. A spokesman for the Elders' visit, however, said the Gaza portion of the visit had been postponed "due to security concerns" and would not elaborate. The Elders hope to reschedule a Gaza visit in the coming weeks, the group's spokesman said.

"We think these people, with their prestige and their will to push for peace, are a very respectable group who will always be welcome in Israel," says Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry. "However, what they seem to want to do now will not promote the chances of peace, but rather the opposite. Going to Gaza and meeting Hamas officials will be very unhelpful. Hamas is still in opposition to the international Quartet's conditions, and a move towards them will be detrimental towards peace."

A Palestinian state in two years?

The Quartet, which includes representatives from US, the UN, the EU, and Russia, declared when Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006 that the Islamic movement would have to meet certain conditions in order to gain international legitimacy; these requirements included foreswearing violence and recognizing Israel.

The Elders' visit has come at a time of heightened political and diplomatic intensity. In addition to Netanyahu's trip to Europe amid a dispute between Israel and Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, Mr. Fayyad, the Palestinian premier, declared Thursday that his government would create a de facto state in two years, regardless of what happens with peace negotiations.

"The Palestinian government is struggling determinedly against a hostile occupation regime ... in order to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two years," he said in a Ramallah press conference. "This can and must happen within two years."

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz responded to Fayyad's announcement by saying that there was no place for "unilateral" measures and threats. "It is clear that a Palestinian state, no matter what its form, will not see the light of day if Israel's security concerns are not taken into account," Steinitz said in an interview on state-run Israel Radio.

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How's Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to Europe going to be affected by a debate over settlements? Check out our story here. The trip is also likely to be tainted by a developing diplomatic row between Israel and Sweden, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, over a Swedish tabloid's publication of a story on alleged organ theft.

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