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Key Labor Lawmaker Calls for Talks With Abbas

Ephraim Sneh, the leader of the Labor faction in the Knesset and a respected voice on military affairs, claims that Israel should immediately engage in direct negotiations with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

“We need to close the Palestinian file through an agreement,” Sneh told a gathering of the Israeli Policy Forum in New York on Thursday. “The last years have damaged the IDF by turning it into a border police, it has hurt our economy and our ability to have allies in the region. … So we need to start negotiating with Abbas.”

While he ruled out negotiations with Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel and past agreements, Sneh noted that the group has de facto agreed to delegate talks with Israel to Abbas. He added that the strategy of isolating Hamas was succeeding because its inability to govern had damaged its popularity among Palestinians.

Sneh urged Washington to empower Abbas and help him build up his security forces and deploy them in Gaza. In an effort to jump-start the peace process, Sneh joined with Abbas in 2003 to co-author the “Gaza Pilot” plan, which advocated the transfer of control of Gaza to the Palestinians, to be followed by development of economic infrastructure there and a crackdown on terror.

In his talk Thursday, Sneh, a former deputy defense minister under Ehud Barak, argued that the government should begin discussions on a draft agreement with the Palestinian leader that would then be put to a referendum.

At the same time that it seeks peace with the Palestinians, Sneh said, Israel should draw the lessons from the Lebanon war and improve its military capabilities to prepare for the “next round” of what he describes as a looming war with Iran.

“We have to make sure we win the next war, which is unavoidable as long as [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is in power,” he said.

Sneh argued that though the decision not to send ground troops earlier and in greater number was a mistake, Israel still won the war, if not decisively. He called for a state commission to look into the failures of the war rather than the government-appointed panel favored by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “We need to make sure the examination has a real moral authority,” he said.

In addition, Sneh, who is also a doctor and a former Health Minister, said the government should dedicate time and money to rebuilding Israel’s welfare state. He noted that the poor in the North had felt abandoned during the recent conflict. “When I visited shelters in Acco, I saw the Israeli New Orleans,” he added somberly. “We need to make the government responsible again.”
While he acknowledged the difficulties of the current coalition government, Sneh argued that it was the most moderate Israel has had in years and that if Labor would pull out, the next government would be more hawkish.

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