The militant Islamic Hamas could wrest the West Bank from the western-backed rule of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, just as it did in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.
"Everyone knows that Hamas could take over the Palestinian Authority," a statement from Netanyahu's office quoted him as telling members of a Jewish bible study circle meeting at his Jerusalem residence.
"It could happen after an (Israeli-Palestinian peace) agreement, it could happen before an agreement, like it happened in Gaza," he said, three weeks before a general election in which he will seek to boost his support among religious-nationalist settlers and their backers.
"Therefore, as opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions, withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste," he added, an apparent retort to recent comments from dovish President Shimon Peres.
Peres on Sunday urged Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, saying Abbas was a willing partner with whom an agreement could be reached.
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"There is not much time left," Peres warned.
Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold since September 2010, with the Palestinians insisting on a settlement freeze before returning to the negotiating table and the Israelis insisting on no preconditions.
On Monday Peres, whose constitutional role is largely ceremonial and is supposed to put him outside the political debate, said there was no fundamental reason not to talk to Hamas if it were to renounce violence.
"There is nothing wrong with talking with Hamas, if you get an answer," Peres told local Christian leaders at a New Year's reception in Jerusalem.
Israel and much of the international community formally shun Hamas as a terror organisation.
The so-called Quartet of Middle East peacemakers -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- demands that Hamas recognise Israel, renounce violence and pledge to honour existing Palestinian agreements with Israel if it wants to become a diplomatic player.