Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni yesterday played down U.S.-backed hopes of a peace deal with the Palestinians this year, saying a premature agreement could trigger new violence.
"There is some kind of expectations of doing something before the end of the year," she said in reference to statements made by all sides at a U.S.-sponsored conference that revived the long dormant peace process last November.
"I believe that the timeline is important but what is more important is the content and the nature of the understanding that we can reach with the Palestinians," Livni said at a news conference with foreign journalists.
"I think any attempt to bridge gaps which might be premature to bridge or any attempt to reach something which is not the comprehensive agreement we want to reach can lead ... to clashes, this can lead to misunderstandings, this can lead to violence," she said.
"Until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed," said Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team in the peace talks and hopes to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he steps down after elections for the leadership of their centrist Kadima party in mid-September.
She also acknowledged that even if an agreement is reached, it might not be implemented as long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist movement seized control from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.
"The question of how long it should be on the shelf depends not on our willingness but on the situation on the ground," said Livni.
She insisted that Hamas, blacklisted by the European Union and the United States as a terrorist organization, cannot be included in negotiations.
"Nobody can afford a terror state," she said.
"This is the reason we negotiate with pragmatic leaders even though they don't control anything in Gaza Strip, which is being controlled completely by Hamas. Even in the West Bank, they are not strong enough," Livni said.
She insisted that any peace deal would not include the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The United Nations says there are now 4.6 million registered refugees, including both those who fled or were forced out of Israel at its creation in 1948 and their descendants.
"When we are talking two states for two people, the idea is Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people and the Palestinian state is the homeland for the Palestinians," Livni said.
"Without this concept, there is no agreement," she said, adding: "This is one of the two basic pillars ... the other of course is Israel's security."
"What the Palestinians call the right to return is not an option," she said."
Reacting to Livni's comments, Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina claimed her warning about any premature agreement amounted to "an Israeli attempt to avoid reaching an accord."
He also criticized her position on Palestinian refugees and urged Israel to "adopt a responsible position and not to waste time."
Livni declined to give details of the negotiations with the Palestinians, which have shown little tangible progress since they were re-launched at Annapolis, Maryland in November.