As Netanyahu meets Obama, Israel ex-general offers Hamas talks

Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, now leader of Israel's opposition party, unveiled a new peace plan Sunday – and aspirations of replacing Netanyahu.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Former Defense Minister, pictured here in this September 10, 2008 file photo.
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Shaul Mofaz, a leading opposition politician in Israel whose former posts include both army chief of staff and defense minister, said Sunday he has a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace – and he's willing to talk to Hamas to secure it.

"I will also speak with the devil, if it will bring peace to the state of Israel," Mofaz reiterated Monday during a visit to Sderot, which has often been the target of rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. "And if Hamas is chosen in elections to head the Palestinian Authority ... I am ready to speak with them."

But the timing of Mr. Mofaz's announcement, in which he boldly stated that he hopes to carry out his vision as prime minister, aroused skepticism among both Israelis and Palestinians that his intent had more to do with promoting himself than the peace process. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Mofaz's rival during party primaries last year, were in the US.

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"Mofaz's declaration aims at using the Palestinian dispute for his own purposes," says Salah Al Bardawel, the spokesman of the Hamas parliamentary bloc.

Israeli analysts, meanwhile, cast Mofaz's plan more as a domestic challenge than a diplomatic offering.

"Shaul Mofaz yesterday joined the growing number of Israeli politicians, both right and left, who have presented their own peace plans," wrote Yossi Verter in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. "There is no lack of plans; the peace shelf is groaning under their weight. Only peace itself remains elusive." Mofaz's plan, he writes, "is mostly about domestic politics."

Hamas rejects Mofaz's proposal

Mofaz holds the No. 2 slot in Kadima – the centrist opposition party headed by Ms. Livni that won the highest number of votes in February's election but did not have enough parliamentary support to form a government.

Mofaz chose to unveil his plan while Livni, along with many Israeli politicians, was attending a major Jewish-American conference in Washington. Mr. Netanyahu, who addressed the conference, was also scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama amid a new nadir in efforts to resurrect the US-brokered peace process. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week he would not run for reelection in January elections, potentially leaving the Palestinian Authority rudderless.

Mofaz said at the press conference Sunday that he was proposing the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders on 60 percent of the West Bank within a year. The Palestinian position calls for a total withdrawal from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

"We don't believe in any negotiations that gives legitimacy to the Israeli occupation of our lands, or shows a good face to the Israeli occupation and coverage for its crimes," said Mr. Bardawel, the Hamas parliamentary bloc spokesman.

He reiterated the position Hamas has held for the last few years: The Islamic fundamentalist group would accept a truce with Israel but would never sign a peace pact, believing that such a treaty is forbidden by Islam. And its leaders insist Israel must withdraw to the armistice lines in effect until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Hamas's vision for the conflict is clear: a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders in return for a long-term truce. Any other option is not acceptable by Hamas."

Once part of Likud, Mofaz now critical

Mofaz, who was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel with his parents at the age of 9, has been a rising political figure for several years. He initially turned down the offer from former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join the Kadima party, and instead joined the rightist Likud upon retiring from the military. But afterward, he switched to Kadima, and is now in an ongoing leadership battle with Livni, who has so far refrained from commenting on Mofaz's challenge.

Mofaz said that under Netanyahu, there's been a "diplomatic freeze" that has become dangerous and irresponsible, and that the Likud party leader had no peace plan to offer after nine months in office.

Safwat al-Kahout contributed reporting from the Gaza Strip.

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