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Foreign minister says Israel not bound to follow two-state path

Avigdor Lieberman's remarks draw criticism from Palestinians and show sharp disagreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Obama administration.

April 02, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared Wednesday that his nation's new government would not be bound by a U.S.-backed understanding to work toward establishing a Palestinian state.

His remark outraged Palestinian leaders and highlighted sharp disagreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Obama administration.

Netanyahu has long opposed the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state. Taking office late Tuesday, the conservative leader struck a somewhat conciliatory tone, offering instead to work for a permanent agreement on limited Palestinian self-rule.

Lieberman's speech, his first as Israel's top diplomat, was blunt and openly hawkish. The ultranationalist foreign minister warned against broad concessions to the Palestinians, saying they "only bring pressure and more wars."

He dismissed a formal declaration, made at a 2007 Israeli-Palestinian peace conference, that committed both parties to further "the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine." President George W. Bush held the conference in Annapolis, Md., and brokered the statement by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"It has no validity," Lieberman said of the declaration. "The Israeli government never ratified Annapolis, nor did parliament."

Nabil abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said Lieberman's statement represents a threat to the region's stability. He said the Obama administration "should take a clear position against this policy before things get worse."

Later, a U.S. official told reporters accompanying President Obama to the G-20 summit in London, "It remains our view that a two-state solution . . . is in our interests and the region's interests." Last week the president said advancement toward that goal is "critical."

At a ceremony hours before Lieberman's speech, Israeli President Shimon Peres reminded Netanyahu and his Cabinet that "the majority of countries in the world" back the Palestinian quest for statehood -- a hint that Israel faces isolation.

Netanyahu has privately assured Western officials that he, not his outspoken foreign minister, will set Israel's foreign policy. Lieberman was given the job because Netanyahu needed his Israel Is Our Home party, which finished strong in Feb. 10 elections, to assemble a majority coalition in parliament.

In Netanyahu's previous stint as prime minister, he showed a willingness to make concessions in dealings with Washington and the Palestinians, and he may do so again as he and the Obama administration seek common ground.

For now, it appears that Lieberman is speaking for his boss.

Zalman Shoval, who advises Netanyahu on foreign policy, said the prime minister also regards the Annapolis declaration as nonbinding.

Shoval said the yearlong peace talks launched at Annapolis were fruitless because they "went straight to the core issues," such as borders and the status of Palestinian refugees, instead of first taking steps to build trust between the two sides.

"That guaranteed disagreement," he said. "What we want to do is say, 'OK, look, let's move forward in stages and we are not, at this point, precluding or excluding any exact definition of what the outcome will be.' "

Lieberman's statement "was simply a message that this is a new government and the policy of this government is going to be different," said Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

"Neither Obama nor Netanyahu is looking for a confrontation at this point," he said. "Lieberman is Lieberman. This is what they expected from him. He just did it in the style he likes."

Lieberman spoke at the Foreign Ministry during a transfer ceremony attended by his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, Israel's lead negotiator in the post-Annapolis talks. She grimaced throughout his speech and afterward spoke to him privately.

"In spite of everything that you said, there will be a two-state solution," she told him, according to an Israeli official who overhead the conversation and later spoke to Reuters news agency.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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