Israeli President Denies Bid to Foil Peace Talks

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Former Justice Minister and Kadima council head MK Haim Ramon dismissed a report that he had advised chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat not to enter direct talks with Israel at this time.

Ramon said the anonymous witness interviewed by Channel One anchorwoman Ayala Hasson, "thinks he heard what he heard."

According to the report broadcast Thursday on Israel Radio, the witness overheard a conversation in English between Ramon and Erekat at Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel on July 8, while sitting nearby. He may have recorded the conversation on his cell phone.

The anonymous witness said he heard Ramon convey a message to Erekat from President Shimon Peres, who allegedly said it was pointless to enter direct talks with Israel because (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu would not agree to anything.

The president's office confirmed that Peres and Ramon had lunch together the day before the meeting, but the office issued a statement denying that the president sent Ramon as an emissary.

Ramon, for his part, said there was nothing unusual about the meeting.

"I have been meeting occasionally with Palestinian leaders for many years," Ramon said. "This is nothing new."

"I have said in the past and I will say it again today. I say through the media what I say on closed talks, and my political interpretation relating to the Netanyahu government's capabilities of bringing about an agreement with the Palestinians is clear and unambiguous," Ramon said.

Erekat refused to comment, saying he didn't discuss private meetings with the press.

Kadima chairwoman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni said she would investigate the claims "through the proper channels," according to Israel Radio.

Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Cairo on Thursday to meet with Arab League leaders to get their advice on sitting down at the negotiating table with Netanyahu.

Despite international pressure, Abbas has continually said he is disinclined to enter direct talks with Israel unless Netanyahu agrees to withdraw to pre-1967 armistice lines and freeze all building in Judea, Samaria (the West Bank) and Jerusalem.

Netanyahu told visiting Spanish Minister Miguel Moratinos on Wednesday that extending the 10-month construction freeze in Judea and Samaria, which ends September 26, would bring down the government.

A majority of cabinet ministers do not support extending the building freeze, which was intended to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

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The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.

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