updated 5/10/2006 3:29:03 AM ET 2006-05-10T07:29:03

Israel will give the Palestinians until the end of the year to prove they are willing to negotiate a final peace deal, and will unilaterally set its final borders by 2008 if they don’t, Israel’s justice minister said Wednesday.

The statement by Justice Minister Haim Ramon, a close associate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s, was the first by an Israeli official to set a deadline for the Hamas-led Palestinian government to disarm and recognize the Jewish state.

The Palestinians’ moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, has tried to persuade Israel to bypass Hamas and resume peace negotiations with him, but Olmert has made it clear that he is not prepared to negotiate with Abbas if Hamas doesn’t change its violent ways.

Hamas thus far has refused to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, despite intense international pressure and the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and Israeli transfer payments.

“Through the end of this year, 2006, there will be honest attempts to talk to the other side,” Ramon told Israel’s Army Radio.

“If it becomes clear by the end of the year that we really have no partner, and the international community is also convinced of this, then we will take our fate into our own hands and not leave our fate in the hands of our enemies,” he added.

Final borders expected by 2008
Olmert, who was a major force behind Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year, has said he intends to pull Israeli settlers out of heavily populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank while fortifying major settlement blocs and holding on to the West Bank’s Jordan River Valley.

His original timetable had called for a pullback by 2010, but a top aide said last month that Israel planned to conclude the withdrawals by the end of President Bush’s second term in office at the end of 2008.

Asked how long the withdrawal would take, Ramon judged that it would be possible to complete the process in 18 to 24 months.

“I would like to believe that by the end of 2008 we will be deployed on a line that will symbolize the final borders of the state of Israel and promise our existence here as a Jewish democratic state,” he said.

The borders, he said, “will first and foremost include the settlement blocs and the regions that are necessary for our security.”

Palestinian lawmaker and negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, was a ready and willing negotiating partner.

“President Abu Mazen stands ready to immediately resume permanent status negotiations,” Erekat said. “At the same time, we urge the (Hamas-led) government to accept the two-state solution, but this should not stand in the way.”

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