Likud-Beiteinu, the joint Knesset list run by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, hit back at President Shimon Peres on Sunday after he criticized the former foreign minister's handling of the Palestinian issue, though the prime minister later tried to dial down the rhetoric.
Speaking before about 100 Israeli ambassadors gathered at the Foreign Ministry's annual conference, Peres said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace, and criticized the way Lieberman has handled Israel's foreign policy over the past four years.
Likud-Beiteinu subsequently released an official statement voicing disappointment with the president's comments, and declaring Peres' political opinion to be "disconnected" from the Israeli public when it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians.
"It is very disappointing that the president chooses to express a personal political opinion that is disconnected from the Israeli public's stance regarding Abu Mazen [Abbas], the peace refusenik." Likud-Beiteinu said in its statement. "It is even more disappointing that the president chose to present before foreign diplomats a political stance that encourages condemnations of Israel in the international community."
Netanyahu has called on Abbas to return to the negotiating table dozens of time, but the latter has refused, the statement added.
Also on Sunday, senior officials on the Likud-Beiteinu added that Peres had invited journalists for an off-the-record conversation, in which he voiced his criticism of Netanyahu.
The same officials blamed Peres for an article that appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth last week, which quoted a senior political source as saying "Netanyahu is leading Israel to tragedy" due to his refusal to push forward the political process vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
"Peres' behavior with regard to the elections is inappropriate," said the Likud-Beiteinu officials, accusing the president of interfering on behalf of the center-left parties.
Just hours after Likud-Beiteinu issued its statement, Netanyahu tried to soften the flames of his Knesset list's incendiary response. "I admire and respect the president of the state. We meet regularly, sometimes even on Fridays, and exchange opinions," he said. "This is how it's been and this is how it will be."
The President's Residence seemed taken aback by Likud-Beiteinu's response. "It is former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that asked Peres many weeks ago to deliver an address to the Israeli ambassadors, and to present his opinion on the diplomatic issue, and not that of the government," the President's Residence said. "We did not initiate the appearance before the ambassadors, and therefore, Likud's accusations that we are interfering in the elections campaign are unclear to us."
Considering the timing of the president's remarks to the ambassadors, it seems Peres needed to wait for Lieberman to be formally indicted before daring to express his opinion on the former foreign minister's record in that office.
"As a diplomat, it's always better to be a lion in a sheep's skin, rather than to be a sheep, roaring like a lion, scaring the whole world," said Peres. "The objective of diplomacy is to create friends, not to point out enemies."
Peres also said that it takes a great deal of courage "for an Arab leader to stand up and publicly state that he is for peace rather than terror, and for a demilitarized state."
Speaking to the ambassadors, Peres referenced the Palestinian Authority President's comments to Israel's Channel 2 a few weeks ago, in which he promised that he is not seeking to return to his home in Safed.
"Put yourselves in his shoes," said Peres. "A statement like that about Safed requires a great deal of courage. I don't know any other Arab leader who said anything like that," Peres pointed out.
Peres also stressed during his address that he sees no alternative to the two-state solution. "If someone rules out the concept of two national states he has to say what he proposes instead," he said. "Even if we don't offer an alternative, reality will determine it. I am telling you clearly that the notion of a bi-national state threatens the desired nature of Zionism, Judaism and democracy."
Peres also rejected Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "I don't need to define the nature of the Palestinian state and they don't need to recognize our nature. It's undisputed," he said.
Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni later Sunday defended Peres as having told the Israeli public "the truth about Israel's situation and stance."
"He behaved with appropriate responsibility and told the public the truth," Livni said. "This is how everybody who believes in the importance of Israel, and certainly a president, should behave. Netanyahu must stop the Likud's thuggish and cheeky attack on the president of the state. Those who attack the president today haven't done a tenth of what he has for the security of Israel, and are only isolating [the country] and harming its security."
Chair of Israel's Labor party Shelly Yacimovich described Likud-Beitenu's criticism of Peres as "lashing out," and said that this attack of "the president of the state, one of the symbols of the State of Israel, is aggressive and despicable."
Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On decried Likud-Beiteinu's response as proof that it was a "crooked and dangerous" party.
"The prime minister and his party are attacking the president in order to get back the seats taken by [Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali] Bennett. Peres said exactly what Netanyahu said in Bar Ilan speech," Gal-On said, referring to the prime minister's political policy address of 2009, where he declared readiness to advance the two-state solution. "The criticism [of Peres] proves this is a crooked and dangerous party."
Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, also took issue with Likud-Beiteinu's response to Peres. "It would be better if, instead of creating headlines devoid of content, Likud and its leaders treated the president with respect," said Lapid. "The government's disregard of the deteriorating political situation only bequeaths the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to our children."
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