Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Atef Safadi  /  EPA file
"If the desire is there, we will see the resumption of the process in the coming weeks," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/3/2010 2:22:53 PM ET 2010-02-03T19:22:53

Israel's prime minister said Wednesday that long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians could resume in a matter of weeks.

Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community realizes that Israel wants peace negotiations to restart, and that could push the process forward.

"I have a basis to hope, in a realistic way, that in the coming weeks we will renew the peace process with the Palestinians," Netanyahu said at a keynote national security conference in Herzilya, near Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu reiterated Israel was ready to renew the talks that have not convened since a Gaza war erupted in December 2008 without preconditions.

"I hope that if there's a will on the Palestinian side, not only to build the Palestinian economy and institutions but to start building peace itself ... if the desire is there, we will see the resumption of the process in the coming weeks," he said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted Israel totally freeze Jewish settlement construction before talks could resume, and has rejected a temporary cessation in building ordered by Netanyahu in November as insufficient.

Palestinian officials had no immediate comment on Netanyahu's comments that followed weeks of renewed efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama's peace envoy, George Mitchell, to get the sides back to the negotiating table.

Palestinians insist on a halt to West Bank settlement construction before talks resume.

Fatah leader returns to Gaza
Also Wednesday, a senior Fatah leader returned to Gaza for the first time since the territory was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas in 2007, saying he hopes to help end the rift between the bitter rivals.

Nabil Shaath, a Gaza native, was set to meet with senior Hamas officials, including Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar. As he crossed into Gaza from Israel, he handed his passport to Hamas border guards for registration in a powerful symbolic recognition of Hamas authority.

Nabil Shaath
KHALIL HAMRA  /  AP
Palestinian senior Fatah leader Nabil Shaath, center, is welcomed in Beit Hanoun, near the Erez Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
At a joint news conference late Wednesday, Shaath and Hamas official Khalil al-Haya both said the talks were meant to lead to reconciliation, though neither detailed steps to overcome the differences.

However, the cordial tone of the meeting was a contrast to a year of insults flying back and forth between the two sides.

Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, wresting control from forces loyal to Fatah's leader, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed.

Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Abbas-controlled West Bank, which lie on either side of Israel, have drifted further apart since the takeover. The division is seen as a major obstacle to Palestinian statehood.

"This visit has come late," said Shaath, whose Gaza home was looted and burned down by Hamas forces during the takeover. "But this was the best opportunity. We cannot continue with these divisions."

Shaath plans to stay three days and said he has Abbas' blessing.

However, Abbas played down the move at a West Bank news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "It (Gaza) is our land and it is the right of any Palestinian to go there," Abbas said.

Rocket fired
After nightfall Wednesday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Israel. Police said it caused no casualties or damage. Israel routinely responds to rocket attacks with airstrikes at tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt into Gaza.

Also Wednesday, Hamas submitted its official response to the United Nations concerning allegations that it, along with Israel, committed war crimes during Israel's offensive against Gaza last winter.

The allegations are part of a report by U.N. investigator Richard Goldstone. He alleged that Israel used disproportionate force and intentionally targeted civilians. He said Hamas committed war crimes by firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli border towns.

Hamas insisted in its 80-page response, whose main points were made public last week, that rocket fire was directed at military targets and that any civilian casualties were accidental. However, militants' statements during the war contradict such claims.

Israel responded last week to the Goldstone report, also rejecting war crimes allegations.

In Israel, police safely detonated another barrel bomb on an Israeli beach, just south of Tel Aviv. It was the third explosives-filled barrel to wash ashore this week.

Police said the barrels were released by militants off the coast of the Gaza Strip. Two similar devices were neutralized on beaches closer to Gaza on Monday. Palestinian militants said more were on the way.

"Police are continuing to search the beaches all along the coastline," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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