BEIRUT

Middle East

Israel politicians trade barbs over Meshaal visit

Hamas chief in exile Khaled Meshaal (C) waves at supporters during a visit to the Islamic University in Gaza City on December 9, 2012. Meshaal rejected ceding "an inch" of Palestinian territory to Israel or recognising the Jewish state, in a speech in Gaza where he is on a historic first visit. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS

JERUSALEM: With a snap election looming next month, the Israeli government and opposition traded barbs on Sunday over Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal's landmark weekend visit to Gaza.

The Hamas leader-in-exile's first-ever visit to the territory, during which he gave a speech pledging the movement would not cede "an inch" of historic Palestine, prompted anger in Israel and political recriminations.

Government and opposition politicians alike said the visit made the case for their candidates in the January 22 general election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Meshaal's remarks proved that "our enemies" want "to destroy our state."

Speaking at the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting, he also slammed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for not condemning "the remarks about the destruction of Israel."

"He is unfortunately striving for unity with the same Hamas that is supported by Iran," Netanyahu said of Abbas.

The premier said the situation in Gaza, where Israel dismantled its settlements in 2005, showed unilateral concessions of land would not help peace.

"We are not prepared to repeat the same mistake of a unilateral withdrawal," he said. "We must, and can, oppose it. We are also opposing the international pressure... that is what is required from Israeli leadership."

Education Minister Gideon Saar, a member of Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party, recalled that the party had opposed the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

"All those parties that promise new withdrawals from Judaea and Samaria (the West Bank) want to elevate Hamas to power," he charged.

Ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennet, who heads the Jewish Home party, told public radio his faction had pressured the government to prevent Meshaal from visiting Gaza.

"I don't understand why we allowed him to enter Gaza and why, once he was there, we didn't liquidate him, because he deserves to die," said Bennet, whose faction is allied with the Likud and, polls suggest, could win as many as 12 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who will contest the elections at the head of a new party, HaTnua (The Movement), said Hamas "on Saturday celebrated the defeat of the Israeli government."

"Every day that passes under this government, Hamas is strengthened and Israel is weakened," she said in a statement.

"This government negotiated with Hamas," she said, referring to Egyptian-brokered talks that led to a ceasefire ending eight days of bloodshed in and around Gaza last month.

"What's worse, they allowed them to gain international legitimacy," she added, alluding to a succession of solidarity visits to the territory by Arab and regional top diplomats.

On Saturday, Shaul Mofaz -- who heads the centre-right Kadima faction that Livni once led -- said the Israeli government should have killed Meshaal in Gaza.

"We should have taken advantage of the opportunity to slice the head off the serpent. Meshaal deserves to die," said Mofaz, who is a former defence minister.

"If Israel continues to weaken Abu Mazen (Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas) and does not deal firmly with Hamas, we will soon see Meshaal in Judaea and Samaria," he added.

 

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