Peres: Israel wants direct talks
Sofia - Israel hopes to start direct peace talks with the Palestinians "as early as possible", Israeli President Shimon Peres said on Wednesday.
"For the time being, the three parties - the US, the Palestinians and Israel - are leading proximity talks. But we have to go from proximity talks to direct talks," Peres said after talks in Sofia with his Bulgarian counterpart Georgy Parvanov.
"I hope it will happen as early as possible and as soon as I hope," Peres said, noting some "positive advancements" in this direction.
The Palestinians and Israelis have since May been holding indirect "proximity" talks - with former US senator George Mitchell acting as a go-between - but they have not held direct negotiations since Israel launched a military offensive against Hamas militants in December 2007.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has conditioned the resumption of direct negotiations on a complete Israeli halt to settlement building in the Palestinian West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "himself declared that he is for a two-state solution - a Palestinian State alongside the Israeli State, living in peace and respect and enabling each of us to become neighbours instead of continuing to be part of the conflict," Peres said.
Israel had left Hamas-ruled Gaza "willingly" and was "unwilling to go back". he said.
"If the people of Gaza and their rulers will declare that they are against terror, stop shooting and enter in peace, Gaza will be free and open without any problems between us," Peres said.
Peres' one-day visit to Sofia comes less than a month after Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas also visited Bulgaria.
For his part, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited both Israel and the Palestinian territories in January and travelled to the US in late May, right ahead of Abbas' trip to Sofia.
Asked whether the timing of the visits was a coincidence, Peres appeared to hint that Bulgaria might be a good place for holding direct talks with the Palestinians.
"I don't think it is a coincidence. I think it is a mistake of the dates: we should have come together (with Abbas) here," he said.
"I was asked if Bulgaria was a good place for us and the Palestinians to meet. I must say I can't think of a better place," Peres said.
The Israeli president received Bulgaria's highest award, the "Stara Planina".
And after receiving the decoration, he warmly thanked Bulgaria for refusing to send 49 000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps during World War 2, even though the country officially sided with the Nazis.
"It is more natural for me to decorate Bulgaria with an order (...) You saved the Bulgarian Jewish community and I have no words to express my gratitude," Peres told Parvanov.