UNITED NATIONS -- Using the podium of the UN General Assembly, Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, spoke against a Palestinian state and said any peace deal could take decades -- drawing a quick rebuttal from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a walk-out by Palestinian delegates.
Lieberman, a leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) party, has voiced these views before but rarely at an international forum. He spoke on Tuesday, near the end of the Assembly's session of kings, presidents, prime and foreign ministers. Yisrael Beiteinu is a key partner in the five-party coalition Israeli government.
The timing was judicious. Netanyahu, who meets US envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday, wants to go down in history as forging a peace deal with the Palestinians. He has entered talks with President Mahmoud Abbas, aimed at reaching agreement within a year to end the 62-year old Middle East conflict. The talks are extremely fragile since Netanyahu did not extend a moratorium that expired on Sunday on the building of settlements in the West Bank, triggering a threat by Palestinians to leave the negotiations.
In a text message to correspondents in Jerusalem, Netanyahu's office said:
"The content of the foreign minister's speech at the United Nations was not coordinated with the prime minister. Prime Minister Netanyahu is the one who is managing the political negotiations of the state of Israel."
Lieberman said the removal of settlements were not the issue since their evacuation from Gaza did not engender peace. Instead "we should focus on coming up with a long-term intermediate agreement, something that could take a few decades. We need to raise an entire new generation that will have mutual trust and will not be influenced by incitement and extremist messages."
Another major point was that conflict can be reduced through separation, such as splits among the former Yugoslav republics, a direct contradiction of Netanyahu's position. "Thus, the guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather, exchange of populated territory. Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities " These comments were taken as a reference to his previous views that Israeli Arab citizens could be moved in a land swap.
And Lieberman's bottom line was that the establishment of a Palestinian state would not ensure peace in the region since the West Bank was under Arab control between 1948 and 1967 and "no one tried to create a Palestinian state."
Palestinian delegates walked out of the Assembly and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who saw Lieberman before the Assembly speech "expressed his disappointed that the government of Israel had not yet decided to extend its settlement restraint policy," a UN statement said.
Now what? With the peace talks wavering before they even begin, will Netanyahu be able to keep Lieberman as foreign minister or need to replace him with someone from the centrist Kadima party? Will his government hold if he does this? Officials from the Labor Party, part of the coalition, as well as Kadima, sharply criticized Lieberman and called for his removal.
The Israeli press has just begun to react. The Jerusalem Post quoted an unidentified Israeli government source as saying that ministers and parliamentarians "were at liberty to express their opinions in international forums." Such expression is not unusual and is understood by the international community, the source was quoted as saying
But Aluf Benn wrote in the liberal Haaretz: "Israel showed the international community on Tuesday that the country is ruled by a circus, not a responsible government with a policy." Then there was Lebanon Lieberman's Middle East address was not the only "say-what" speech on Tuesday. In a Security Council session, organized by Turkey's articulate Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Lebanon's UN ambassador, Nawaf Salam, first questioned whether those resisting foreign occupation (a reference to Israel), could be called terrorists . Then he said: "The best example about the issue is that no one labeled the French resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II as terrorism." (A French official remarked afterward that that France's resistance movement was not aimed at killing civilians.)