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ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: NO PALESTINIAN STATE BY 2012

Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Israel's hard-line foreign minister said Tuesday that there was "no chance" a Palestinian state would be established by 2012 - a message that threatened to cloud the latest visit by President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy.

The comments by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman drew swift Palestinian condemnations and could put Israel at odds with the international community, which has set a 2012 target for brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

"As an optimist, I see no chance that a Palestinian state will be established by 2012," Lieberman said at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "We can express interest, we can dream, but in reality, we are still far from reaching understandings and agreements on establishing an independent state by 2012."

Russia, along with the United States, European Union and United Nations, make up the "Quartet" of Mideast negotiators - an international group that has spent nearly a decade trying to forge a peace agreement.

White House envoy George Mitchell was set to mediate a fifth round of indirect talks between the sides starting today. Mitchell is trying to prod Israel and the Palestinians into direct negotiations.

It wasn't clear whether Lieberman was expressing his own opinion or government policy. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to comment.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government accused Lieberman of defying international efforts to wrap up a deal.

"Lieberman is issuing a challenge to the international community, which is in agreement on the two-year ceiling," Ghassan Khatib said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called Lieberman's comments "a severe slap to the Palestinians and the Arabs who believe in the mirage of a peace agreement."

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