Israeli President Shimon Peres said on Monday that there is no fundamental reason not to talk to the militant Palestinian Hamas if it renounces violence and decides to take a constructive course.
"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.
"But Hamas and Gaza have to decide what do they want, peace or war," he added in remarks in English broadcast by Israeli army radio.
The radio's website quoted Peres as saying that future relations were up to the Islamic Hamas itself, which rules the Gaza Strip and espouses violent opposition to the Jewish state.
"What kind of relationship do they want to have with Israel," it quoted him as saying. "A relationship of shooting or of building ? If they want to build, Israel would be happy to see them succeed. We take no pleasure in seeing anyone, young or old, suffering in Gaza."
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.
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Peres's office did not release a full transcript of Monday's remarks but said in a statement that "President Peres stressed that he opposes negotiations with Hamas while they reject the three principles of the Quartet."
Peres on Sunday raised rightwing hackles by saying that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was a willing partner for peace with whom an agreement could be reached.
"There is currently no other Arab leader who is saying he is in favour of peace, against terror, in favour of a demilitarised (Palestinian) state," Peres told a conference of Israeli diplomats.
"I have known Abu Mazen for 30 years, and nobody will change my opinion of him," he said using the name by which Abbas is familiarly known in Arabic.
Peres, whose constitutional role is largely ceremonial and is supposed to put him outside the political debate, drew a swift rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, which is contesting a January 22 general election in alliance with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.
"It is very saddening that the president chose to express a personal political opinion that is contrary to the Israeli public's stance on Abu Mazen, the peace refuser," a statement from the party read.
But Peres's Monday statements were echoed by opposition leader Shaul Mofaz in remarks to students near Tel Aviv, also carried by army radio.
"As long as it is a terror organisation with a murderous ideology... we shouldn't talk to it," he said. "Is there a possibility that in the future we shall to them? The answer is yes, on condition that it accepts the Quartet's conditions."
Mofaz, who heads the centrist Kadima party, said earlier this month that Israel should have assassinated Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal during a four-day visit to Gaza in which he vowed never to give up even "an inch" of Palestinian territory or recognise the Jewish state.