New Israeli foreign minister disavows U.S.-led peace talks

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

JERUSALEM — As foreign diplomats and his predecessor looked on in astonishment, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman began his new job Wednesday by declaring the death of U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"Whoever thinks that concessions . . . will achieve something is wrong," Lieberman said shortly after being sworn in before a crowded room of diplomats at the Foreign Ministry. "He will bring pressures and more wars."

The latest round of talks in the 61-year conflict has faltered ever since former President George W. Bush launched it 16 months ago in Annapolis, Md., but Lieberman made it clear that he opposes attempts to pressure Israel into rushing into a deal with a weak Palestinian leadership.

He said the joint statement at Annapolis, which calls for "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" with the Palestinians, no longer bound Israel.

"It has no validity," Lieberman said as Tzipi Livni, the outgoing foreign minister, who led Israel's negotiating team during the Annapolis process, grimaced by his side.

Lieberman, a Soviet-born former nightclub bouncer, heads the ultranationalist Israel Is Our Home Party, the second-largest coalition partner in the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At one point Livni became so angry about Lieberman's speech that she nearly rose to interrupt him.

"She was infuriated, and it was quite clear on her face," one Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the shifting political dynamics in the government.

The speech also flew in the face of statements by President Barack Obama, who's made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority in his young administration.

"It's a direct challenge to the Obama administration," said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli political analyst and the author of "The Accidental Empire," a book on Israel's contentious settlement policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"He's showing himself to be undiplomatic, to be a bull in a China shop," Gorenberg said.

The State Department tried to minimize Lieberman's comments, pointing instead to Netanyahu's statements this week that he's interested in peace with the Palestinians.

"We support the two-state solution, and we will continue to work for that," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said, speaking of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Palestinian political leaders called Lieberman's comments a slap in the face of diplomacy and a clear sign that the new government isn't serious about resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"He's an obstacle to peace," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

While Lieberman supports a two-state deal as necessary to preserve the predominant Jewish identity of Israel, Netanyahu has avoided endorsing a creation of a Palestinian state — Obama's goal — or talking publicly about a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lieberman spoke hours after Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel's prime minister and the head of a fractious governing coalition that also includes the center-left Labor Party, which long has favored negotiating a two-state solution to the impasse.

There's been widespread anxiety about Netanyahu's decision to tap Lieberman, an international lightning rod for political criticism, as foreign minister.

As a member of the Israeli parliament, Lieberman has suggested that Arab-Israeli lawmakers who met with the country's Middle East adversaries should be executed as collaborators. He also suggested that Israel give up Arab villages in northern Israel in exchange for annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli President Shimon Peres once called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to apologize after Lieberman said the Egyptian leader could "go to hell" if he refused to visit Israel.

Lieberman won over many voters during the recent election by focusing on a proposal, clearly aimed at Israel's Arab minority, that would strip Israelis of voting rights if they refused to take a loyalty oath.

His speech Wednesday created an early dilemma for Netanyahu, who's barely had time to settle into the prime minister's post.

Netanyahu's main spokesman for the international media is Mark Regev, a veteran government official who served in the same role for Livni and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Regev had no comment Wednesday on Lieberman's speech.

While Lieberman eschewed the U.S.-led Annapolis negotiations, he said Israel was still bound by the 2003 "road map" for peace, which outlines the steps that Israel and the Palestinians need to take to end the conflict with a two-state solution.

The speech set the Netanyahu government off to a bumpy start.

On Wednesday, Israel's left-leaning daily newspaper Haaretz said in its lead editorial that Netanyahu's government was "destined to fail."

"Among the new people there is not a single minister of promise; no appointment arouses expectations," the editorial says. "Amid the foreign and domestic challenges, Netanyahu has presented a government of paralysis that will have difficulty functioning and making fateful decisions; a government without vision or enthusiasm for getting things done and without ministers to lead change."

"Israel sent the world a message last night that it is not headed for peace and change," the editorial concludes. "All that remains is to hope that Israel's largest government ever . . . will also be the government that makes way for its successor with the greatest speed."

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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