Israeli Minister Dismisses Peace Effort

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 03-Apr-09 | Author: Isabel Kershner| Source: New York Times

Avigdor Lieberman has generally opposed the plans laid out in the Middle East peace talks held in Annapolis, Md., in 2007.

JERUSALEM - In a blunt and belligerent speech on his first day as Israel's new foreign minister, the hawkish nationalist Avigdor Lieberman declared Wednesday that "those who wish for peace should prepare for war" and that Israel was not obligated by understandings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached at an American-sponsored peace conference in late 2007.

"Those who think that through concessions they will gain respect and peace are wrong," Mr. Lieberman said during a transfer ceremony at the Foreign Ministry. "It is the other way around; it will lead to more wars."

His predecessor in the post of foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, a centrist, led Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians in a year of intensive talks after the 2007 conference, held in Annapolis, Md.

The aim of the Annapolis process, as it became known, was to agree on the framework for a Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2008, a goal that was not achieved.

Mr. Lieberman said that the Israeli government "never ratified Annapolis, nor did Parliament," and that it therefore "has no validity."

Mr. Lieberman is part of the new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party, which was sworn in late Tuesday. Mr. Lieberman leads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, an important partner in the governing coalition and the third largest party in Parliament.

As the new prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, promising to hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority toward a permanent accord. But he has also stopped short of endorsing the two-state solution, putting the new government at odds with the United States and the European Union.

Tony Blair, the special envoy of the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers, which consists of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, said Wednesday that the peace process was in "very great jeopardy." Speaking after talks at European Union headquarters in Brussels, Mr. Blair said, "We need a combination of strong political negotiations toward a two-state solution and major change on the ground," according to The Associated Press.

Palestinian officials reacted with alarm to Mr. Lieberman's statements. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said by telephone that Mr. Lieberman had "closed the door on Annapolis and closed the door in the face of the international community."

Mr. Netanyahu's office did not address Mr. Lieberman's remarks but issued a statement saying that President Obama and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had telephoned to congratulate the new prime minister, and that the conversations were "friendly."

The choice of Mr. Lieberman, an unsubtle and often unpredictable politician, as foreign minister had already aroused trepidation in Israel and abroad.

Not known for diplomacy, he ran a contentious election campaign demanding loyalty as a condition for Israeli citizenship. Seen by many as racist, it was widely viewed as a broadside against Israel's Arab citizens, a sense bolstered by the campaign slogan "Only Lieberman understands Arabic."

He once advocated bombing the Aswan dam in the event of a war with Egypt, and last year he suggested that Egypt's president should "go to hell" if he did not want to visit Israel.

Mr. Lieberman now seems to have moderated his stance toward Egypt, an important strategic ally of Israel's. He said on Wednesday that "Egypt is an important element in the Arab world and in the world in general." He added that he would "certainly be happy to visit Egypt, but I'll also be happy to see Egypt's leaders visit here."

Often contradictory and contrary in his positions, Mr. Lieberman, a resident of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, has said that he advocates the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Yet in January 2008 he pulled his party out of the last governing coalition, led by Ehud Olmert and the centrist Kadima Party, in protest against the Annapolis-inspired talks.

Mr. Lieberman said on Wednesday that instead of Annapolis, Israel was committed to the "road map," a 2003 American-backed performance-based peace plan that made the creation of a Palestinian state contingent on the Palestinians ending all violence and dismantling terrorist networks.

Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, noted that the plan also called for Israel to freeze all settlement construction. "I'd really like to know, are we going to see a settlement freeze?" Mr. Erekat said.

At an official ceremony welcoming the new Israeli leadership on Wednesday, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, urged Mr. Netanyahu's government to "invest great effort in advancing the peace process on every front."

"The outgoing government espoused the vision of two states for two peoples, which was initiated by the American government and accepted by the majority of countries in the world," Mr. Peres said. "It is up to your government to decide the shape of the reality to come."