DOHA, Qatar - Vice Premier Shimon Peres rejected a proposal made Tuesday by Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani to hold direct negotiations with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
Peres said Israel will not offer any opportunity to Hamas for direct peace negotiations unless the Palestinian group recognizes Israel.
The deputy prime minister spoke at a press conference in Doha, Qatar's capital, in what is the highest-level visit of an Israeli to the Gulf region in more than a decade.
"The Emir has asked that Israel recognize the Hamas government as the expression of the Palestinians' will and said Israel should be pragmatic and start negotiations (with Hamas)," Peres said.
Peres said direct talks would continue to be impossible as long as Hamas refuses to abide by accords signed between Israel and Palestine and denies Israel's right to existence.
"We will not hold talks until they (Hamas) change their attitude and (as long as they) refuse to recognize Israel," he said.
Earlier Peres met with a group of 60 students, including some who hail from Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon and Egypt.
"I am declaring, loud and clear, that Israel is willing to make peace with Syria and to go a long way to achieve it, but at the moment the ball is in (President Bashar) Assad's court," the Israeli vice premier told them.
"Five Israeli prime ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu and myself, were willing to make huge concessions for peace with Syria, but all our attempts were thwarted by the late President Hafez al-Assad," he said, adding that "Bashar Assad cannot play for both sides. He cannot fund Hamas and support Hizbullah while talking about peace with Israel."
Asked by a student how Israel would respond should Iran attack with nuclear weapons, the vice premier said, "We will protect ourselves in the best way possible.
"Israel has never mentioned obliterating another nation using nuclear weapons and has never threatened to do so," he said. "The only one to threaten with genocide and war crimes is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I am in favor of the nuclear ambiguity policy and maintaining the balance of power."
'Hamas is an agent of the Iranian leadership'
The vice premier added that Israel's security fence was temporary, saying "It is meant to protect Israel from suicide bombers, arms smugglers and infiltrators.
"As soon as we have a peace treaty, the fence will be dismantled that very day," he said.
He also told the students that his most admired Arab leader was assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who "after fighting Israel, had the courage to come to the Knesset in Jerusalem and sign a firm peace agreement."
When asked by a Syrian student if Israel wanted the Palestinians to remain divided in order to control them better, Peres said, "Where you come from, a strong leader makes war, but in Israel, a strong leader makes peace. My spiritual mentor was David Ben-Gurion, who always strove for peace.
"The Israeli public does not understand why the Qassam rockets are still being fired at Israel despite our withdrawal from Gaza. Hamas is an agent of the Iranian leadership," he said.
Reuters contributed to the report