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Associated Press
Jerusalem – President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that he is hopeful about an upcoming Mideast peace conference and praised the relationship developing between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president.
In his first appearance as Israel’s president before foreign reporters, the 84-year-old Nobel Peace laureate blamed Islamic militants for harsh Israeli restrictions that have severely disrupted life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“It’s not that Israel has introduced this situation,” he said, referring to militants in Gaza who have kept firing rockets into Israel in the two years since Israeli troops withdrew from the coastal territory. “We hate this situation.”
Peres’ comments came after the World Bank reported an alarming deterioration in the Gaza economy. It said Gazan private businesses are endangered because Israel shut border crossings, halting most imports and exports, after Hamas militants seized control of the territory in June.
Hamas’ rout of Fatah forces in Gaza has helped jump-start peace talks between Israel and the moderate Fatah-led government in the West Bank, and Peres said he felt “hopeful” about the Mideast peace conference expected to take place in Washington in November.
Asked about Palestinian concerns that Israel is avoiding specifics for a peace accord in the run-up to the conference, Peres said that “when you negotiate, you cannot start with your fallback positions, but with opening positions.”
He spoke positively about recent meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying the chemistry between the two men is in “very good shape.”
“I think they have made progress,” he added.
He called the fledgling talks with Palestinians a window of opportunity, warning: “We have to be careful not to break it.”
Peres sought to ease worries over the potential for conflict with neighboring Syria following a widely reported Israeli airstrike Sept. 6, saying recent tensions between the two nations are “over.”
Israel has clamped a news blackout on the raid, which Syria announced and U.S. officials have confirmed. Foreign media reports have suggested Israel struck a nuclear facility built with North Korean technology or an Iranian arms shipment meant for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
“The nervousness in relations between Syria and ourselves is over,” Peres said. “We are clearly ready to negotiate directly with Syria for peace.”
Peres’ statement followed similarly conciliatory remarks Monday by Olmert, who said he had “a lot of respect” for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A poll released Tuesday said reports of the airstrike helped Olmert boost his popularity, which plummeted after last year’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The Dahaf Research Institute said 35 percent of Israelis surveyed were pleased with Olmert’s performance, up from 25 percent on Sept. 7 – just after reports of the airstrike emerged.
Peres took office as Israel’s ninth president in July, pledging to devote his seven-year term in the ceremonial post to his lifelong dream of Middle East peace. He has served as Israel’s prime minister three times and in 1994 shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
His appearance on Tuesday was part of a series of events marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Foreign Press Association. Fifty years ago, in June 1957, Peres, then director general of the defense ministry, became the first Israeli official to address the association.
His comments were filled with trademark one-liners that have made him one of Israel’s most colorful orators.
Describing Israel’s drive for solar energy, he said, “We feel the sun is more reliable than the Saudis.”
Asked why Israel’s leaders are so unpopular, he blamed television, saying it “makes dictatorships impossible and democracies intolerable.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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