Israel Sincerity on Peace Weakened by Minister's Remarks, Palestinian Says

Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Israel’s credibility in peace talks was undermined by its foreign minister’s UN speech, as the U.S. accelerated efforts to resolve an impasse over Israeli construction in the West Bank.

“He provided a very, very clear reason for all our skepticism,” Shaath said today in a phone interview, referring to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comments yesterday at the United Nations.

Lieberman, who heads the second-largest party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, called for an “intermediate” accord with the Palestinians because it will take “a few decades” to establish the trust needed for a so- called final-status agreement. Final-status issues include a Palestinian state’s borders, security guarantees for Israel, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem’s status.

Netanyahu, who distanced himself from the speech yesterday, stressed in a meeting today with U.S. envoy George Mitchell that he is committed to reaching an accord with the Palestinians, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. Netanyahu has set the goal of putting together the framework of an agreement with the Palestinians within a year.

This round of talks with Mitchell is aimed at resolving a dispute over Israel’s Sept. 27 resumption of settlement-building in the West Bank after a partial 10-month hiatus. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he can’t continue peace talks amid continued Israeli West Bank construction.

U.S. Proposal

The Obama administration has asked Israel’s government to consider extending a freeze on settlement building in exchange for security assurances, in an effort to keep the talks afloat. The U.S. is proposing a 60-day extension of the suspension of Israeli construction in the West Bank, according to a person briefed by American officials on the matter.

Mitchell said today that the U.S. is “more determined than ever” to achieve Middle East peace, according to an e-mailed statement from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Abbas yesterday to update him on the efforts to keep talks moving forward, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in a message posted on Twitter.

On Oct. 4, the Arab League will meet in Cairo with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority Abbas’s political party, Fatah, to discuss the impasse over the resumption of settlement-building.

Proposes Exchange

Lieberman’s comments, in which he also advocated an exchange of territory between the sides based on population concentrations, “reflects a segment of the Israeli society which wants to get rid of all Christian and Muslim Israeli Palestinians. This is why we are afraid of the settlement policy,” Shaath said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized Lieberman for voicing positions that are contradictory to those of the government in an international arena such as the UN. “It isn’t done,” Barak said today on Israel Army Radio.

Minister of Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman, from Barak’s Labor party, called on Netanyahu to fire Lieberman, telling journalists by text message that the UN speech was intended to “sabotage the peace process.”

‘Coalition Politics’

Netanyahu isn’t likely to push Lieberman out, said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

“While Lieberman’s remarks are harmful to Netanyahu from a public diplomacy point of view, the prime minister is not desperately keen to broaden his coalition at the moment,” Spyer said. “This incident shows the strange and unusual nature of Israeli coalition politics, where a foreign minister thinks he can express a different foreign policy than the government’s without resigning.”

Lieberman defended his remarks in an interview today on Army Radio, saying his position is legitimate and that he saw “no damage done, politically or coalition-wise.”

The State Department spokesman noted the differences of opinion in the Israeli government yesterday, calling it a “manifestation” of the “difficult politics” Netanyahu had already described to Obama administration officials.

Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, said, “I would look at this as a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy that was not necessarily planned in advance, but which the Palestinians and Arab officials have used for decades.”

“The Americans, more than others, understand the complexities of Israeli politics,” Steinberg said by phone. “The alternative of Netanyahu firing Lieberman would be a coalition crisis, or perhaps new elections, and either way we would have months of inaction in negotiations.”

Hamas Attacks

Abbas’s Fatah has continued to advocate talks, while the militant Islamic group Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel, carried out attacks on southern Israel. In the past, Hamas has stepped up attacks during key moments of Middle East peacemaking.

Israeli building crews began work on Sept. 27 at settlements including Ariel, Oranit, Tekoa and Adam, according to Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank.

Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement, has said he has enough political clout to prevent Netanyahu from extending the 10-month partial freeze on construction that ended Sept. 26.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has said the prime minister lacks the necessary majority in Cabinet to pass a freeze extension.

Netanyahu’s government collapsed during his first term as prime minister in 1998 after he made concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians and his coalition allies who supported settlements left the administration.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net.

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