Israel's president has warned that the Palestinians are liable to launch a new uprising if the Jewish state doesn't do more to try to reach a peace accord, stepping up his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of Jan. 22 elections.
The presidency in Israel is a ceremonial position and presidents generally refrain from political statements. But this was the second time in less than two weeks that President Shimon Peres' criticism of Netanyahu's approach to the Palestinians has found an international platform.
"If there is no diplomatic decision, the Palestinians will go back to terror. Knives, mines, suicide attacks," Peres was quoted as saying in Wednesday's edition of the New York Times magazine.
"Even if the local inhabitants do not want to resume the violence, they will be under the pressure of the Arab world," he said, adding that most of the world is likely to support the Palestinians, not Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that as long as he is in charge in the West Bank, he will not permit a repeat of the armed uprising against Israel that erupted in 2000 and triggered harsh Israeli retaliation.
However, Israeli-Palestinian talks have been frozen for four years, with Netanyahu and Abbas unable to agree on the terms for renewing them, and Abbas' self-rule government is mired in a deep financial crisis. Some fear that the general malaise could provide fertile ground for a new Palestinian revolt.
In the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata, more than 30 masked men armed with assault rifles paraded in the streets Thursday. The gunmen, with links to Abbas' Fatah movement, protested against repeated attempts by Palestinian security forces to disarm them and also demanded government jobs.
Abbas has largely managed to get vigilante gunmen off the streets, but Thursday's weapons display was another sign of growing discontent
In Israel, Nobel Peace laureate Peres criticized Netanyahu last month at a meeting of foreign ambassadors, calling Abbas a reliable peace partner and saying Israeli diplomacy must change "from an aggressive approach to a moderate approach of dialogue."
That prompted Netanyahu's Likud Party to release a statement calling Peres out of touch and Abbas a "peace rejecter." It said the president's remarks to a diplomatic audience encouraged international condemnation of Israel.
The prime minister's office had no comment on Peres' remarks to the New York Times. But Cabinet minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu ally, told Israel Radio that Peres was only reinforcing a perception that Israel is to blame for the deadlock, something the government denies.
Peace talks stalled before Netanyahu took office in 2009 and resumed for only three weeks during his tenure.
Abbas says he opposes violence and favors a negotiated peace agreement, but has demanded that Israel freeze the building of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a condition for resuming talks. Netanyahu slowed some settlement construction earlier in his term, but the move failed to jumpstart serious negotiations, and he has since rejected calls to halt all construction.
Netanyahu is expected to form Israel's next government after this month's parliamentary elections, and polls show hard-liners maintaining a comfortable lead over centrist and dovish parties.
Potential coalition partners include parties opposed to Palestinian independence and those in favor of annexing parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinians claim the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for their hoped-for state. In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in those territories in a largely symbolic gesture, overriding Israeli and U.S. objections.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.