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For Peace Talks To Resume, Israel Insists Hamas Must Change


Let's look at the Middle East now. The two leading Palestinian parties are trying to form a unity government. Israel wants them to break up again. The parties are Fatah and Hamas. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says he will not deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, and he called off peace talks, at least for now. The question is how, if at all, Middle East peace can advance.

We discussed this with Ron Dermer, Israel's new ambassador to the United States. At the Israeli Embassy, here in Washington, we asked Dermer if a Palestinian unity government could actually help negotiations.

Why is it so bad if you have a unified Palestinian Authority that you can deal with in some way and work toward a solution?

AMBASSADOR RON DERMER: Well, if you had a reformed Hamas that accepted Israel, that abandoned terrorism, then a unified Palestinian society would be good, because that would be unity for peace. But what you have is this reformed Hamas. Hamas is a terror organization. They call openly for Israel's destruction. And two weeks ago, on the eve of the Seder, when an Israeli citizen was gunned down on a way to a Passover Seder with his pregnant wife and children, Hamas praised the murderer. That happened two weeks ago. So, Hamas hasn't changed at all.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that this creates a situation where the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, could drag Hamas along into whatever peace deal he might eventually be able to make, that gives him some influence over Hamas?

DERMER: You know what? We haven't seen any change from Hamas. And the prime minister made very clear that if Hamas changes and is no longer Hamas, then it's a different story. But we just haven't seen that change. And Hamas is declaring that it's not changing at all. And what we won't accept also is the Palestinians putting forth some technocratic government where Hamas remains in the back office. If Hamas is there in the back office, Israel's not going to be at the negotiating table.

INSKEEP: Could the Palestinians push back at you and say, look, there are members of the Israeli governing coalition we don't like, either, but we're willing to talk to Netanyahu. Could they push the same logic back at you and say...

DERMER: Of course not, because we don't have terrorists who are sitting in the Israeli government. We don't have people who call for the extermination of the Palestinians. And you know why they're not in the Israeli government? They can't even get and run in the Israeli Knesset. You cannot have a political party that would call for the extermination of the Palestinians. You cannot have a terror organization serving in the Israeli Knesset. Hamas is a terror organization.

INSKEEP: Is your government forced to be in a tactical situation right now, by which I mean you're responding to events, you're responding to this development, but it's really hard to see the long-term way forward?

DERMER: Well, look, we'll have to see what develops over the next few weeks. If they consummate this PAC and they actually do form a government, then we'll see what happens. There's talk of them having elections, so we'll have to see how that sort of plays out. But Israel will have to basically conduct a reassessment, because the status quo for the prime minister is not something that's sustainable. He wants to move towards peace. And without a Palestinian partner for peace, Israel will have to do some hard thinking about what the next step is.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State John Kerry made a statement, saying that if things continued, there was a risk of an apartheid situation. He's not the first person ever to use that word. Is that risk there?

DERMER: Look, the State Department spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, made clear that Secretary Kerry does not believe that Israel is an apartheid state. So, I don't know what he said, how he said it, what was the context or anything else. I can tell you that we deeply appreciate that Secretary Kerry has worked so hard to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He has a lot on his plate. There's a lot of issues around the world, in case you noticed. There's a lot of issues in the Middle East, as well.

INSKEEP: But that risk that was mentioned, is that part of the reason that your prime minister finds the situation unsustainable? It's hard to govern a people that are not allowed to vote and make that sustainable and make that approvable to the world.

DERMER: Yeah, but from there to apartheid is something else. I mean, there's no connection between Israel and apartheid, not only because it's not a racial system in Israel, also because virtually all those things that Israel put in place was to protect its own security. So I don't think there's any way that you could put the world apartheid - which is a very charged word and has a certain historical meaning - it's totally inaccurate when it comes to the state of Israel. There is a question of - what you're raising - that you don't want to incorporate, whatever the number is, a million and a half, two million Palestinians, who live in the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, who live in these areas and to incorporate them into the state of Israel. We don't want a binational state. We want Israel to be a Jewish state and a democratic state. And here you have this tension. But at the same time that we're trying to sort of separate from the Palestinians and give them a state of their own, we also want to make sure that we're not endangering our security.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much.

DERMER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ron Dermer, Israel's new ambassador to the United States, spoke with us yesterday here in Washington. Now, last night, Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement on his use of the word apartheid. Kerry withdrew the word, saying it's distracting from his message, and rephrased his warning that Israel needs a two-state solution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.