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Israeli defence minister makes peace pledge

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, May 16 (Reuters) Israel's defence minister vowed that the Jewish state would make every effort for a peace deal with the Palestinians before undertaking any unilateral steps to set its border in the West Bank.

Israel Radio broadcast the remarks by Amir Peretz, the head of the left-of-centre Labour Party, today, a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cautioned Israel that any one-sided moves could fuel extremism in the region.

''we will, as the prime minister has committed himself to doing, make a sincere, serious and real effort to reach a settlement with the Palestinians before any decision to start the convergence plan unilaterally,'' Peretz said.

Peretz, a surprise choice as defence minister as he has limited military experience, said the Jewish state should end its occupation of the West Bank as soon as possible.

''Ruling over another people hasn't done well by us. The sooner we relieve ourselves of this, the better,'' he said in a speech to a Jerusalem conference yesterday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will visit the White House on May 23 to seek US support for Israel's plan to remove isolated Jewish settlements but bolster major enclaves in the occupied land to draw a permanent frontier, following last year's pull-out from Gaza.

He has said the ''final borders'' will largely follow the route of a barrier the Israelis are building in the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is for security but the Palestinians see it as a land grab.

Israeli officials have said that the government would wait up to a year before taking any steps on its own if long-stalled peace talks aren't revived.

Chances for new peace talks have dimmed since a Palestinian government headed by militant group Hamas took office in March.

Hamas's charter calls for Israel's destruction and the movement has ruled out any talks with Israel.

But Abbas, in a pre-recorded address broadcast yesterday on loudspeakers across the West Bank, urged Israel to avoid any unilateral steps and reiterated that he was ready to be a partner for peace negotiations.

''Let's make this year the year of peace, let's sit at the negotiations table away from the policy of diktats and unilateralism. Stop making excuses that there's no Palestinian partner, the partner is there,'' said Abbas, not a Hamas member.

Reuters SI RS1146

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