Hamas denied Wednesday that its Damascus-based political chief Khaled Meshal told Reuters in an interview that his group would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state is established. (Click here for the full interview)

One hour after the Reuters interview was published, the Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad told Haaretz that Meshal said, "Israel exists - and that's a fact."

However, Hamad maintained that Meshal did not say anything about recognizing Israel. "There was no change in our stance that Hamas does not recognize Israel," he said.

Salah Bardawil, head of Hamas's parliamentary faction, told Haaretz that after checking with Meshal, it seems to be that his words were twisted and distorted.

"He didn't speak about any recognition of Israel, only a cease-fire with Israel," Bardawil said.

Meshal, who is considered Hamas' main power broker, told Reuters: "Israel is a "reality" and "there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact."

The problem was not Israel's existence but the failure to establish a state for Palestinians, said Meshal, whose party leads the Palestinian government.

Formal recognition of Israel could only be considered by Hamas once such a Palestinian state is established, Reuters quoted Meshal as saying.

Senior Hamas officials have already made similar statements over the past year, saying Israel's existence is an undeniable reality, but this is the first time that such statements are emanating from the group's Syria-based leadership.

This is also the first time that a Hamas official has raised the possibility of full and official recognition of Israel in the future. To date the group's official position, which Meshal had repeatedly reiterated, was that Hamas will never recognize Israel.

"The distant future will have its own circumstances and positions could be determined then," he said. Past concessions to Israel by Palestinian negotiators went unrewarded, he argued, and his Islamist group would drive hard bargains over key issues such as recognition.

"For Israel to suck us into bargains in stages and in packages - this road constitutes an attempt to weaken the Palestinian position."

Israel and Western governments have put financial sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian government for refusing to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace accords. Egypt has also been stepping up pressure on Hamas to recognize Israel.

Meshal said Hamas would defy the Western conditions and refuse to consider granting formal recognition to Israel until its demand for a Palestinian state was met.

Hamas wants a Palestinian state that includes Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes lost in the 1967 Six Day War and before, Meshal said.

"As a Palestinian today I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders. It is true that in reality there will be an entity or state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land," said Meshal.

"This is a reality but I won't deal with it in terms of recognizing or admitting it," he added.

Asked about Meshal's comments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev responded that Hamas had said in the past it wanted to wipe Israel from the map and there was no indication it had changed its position.

Meshal also blamed "Israeli intransigence" for the delay in a deal to release captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Shalit's father Noam said Wednesday he would be willing to turn himself over to his son's captors if they release the captured soldier.

"The message must reach Gilad Shalit's family that Israel bears the responsibility for prolonging his captivity," Meshal said. "There had been real progress and Egypt is making a positive effort but regrettably the talks stumbled in the last few days because of Israeli intransigence," Meshal said.

"We are keen to release Shalit as soon as possible, but only in return for Israel releasing a number of our men, women, children and Palestinian leaders in its jails," he said.

Meshal said Shalit was being given "good treatment."

"The international community is concerned for one Israeli soldier called Gilad Shalit and has memorized his name," Meshal said. "It must show concern for the suffering of 11,000 Palestinian prisoners who include 400 children and 120 women."

Egypt, Jordan to press for Israeli-Palestinian 'final status' agreement Egypt and Jordan will press for agreement on "final status" issues between Israel and the Palestinians, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Wednesday, days before a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Aboul Gheit told a news conference that the quest should take precedence over the Middle East peace plan known as the road map, announced by international mediators in 2003 but never fully implemented.

"There is a common position by Egypt, Jordan, the Arabs and the Palestinians calling for 'let us agree on the end of the road and let us agree on what we call ... the endgame before we talk about the road map'," he said.

Egypt has floated the same idea before, but it did so this time two days before Rice leaves on a Middle East tour billed as another drive to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

For the past few years, peace moves have concentrated on trying to bring about small confidence-building measures, leaving aside bigger questions such as the borders of a future Palestinian state or the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The Egyptian campaign for a rethink, backed to some extent by Jordan, has made little difference to the policies of the United States, which continues to propose short-term measures by Israelis and Palestinians.

Aboul Gheit added: "The endgame has its specific concepts ... Let's agree on the frameworks of the [peace] settlement. This is the Egyptian position." He did not elaborate.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, who spoke at the same news conference, did not dispute the Egyptian minister's interpretation of Jordan's position.

"The final settlement is a Palestinian demand and an Arab demand, and there must be agreement on the final settlement whatever steps and stages it takes," Khatib added.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Wednesday called on the Palestinians to work to prevent internal violence from exploding into an all-out civil war.

"We stress the necessity of sparing the Palestinian people any internal confrontations and to avoid using weapons as a medium for dialogue and to focus on dialogue only to solve our differences," he said before a Cabinet meeting. "The differences exist, they are there, but this does not mean that they should be solved by gun fire."