Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman harshly criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, saying that "it would be a blessing" for Israel if Abbas resigned.

Speaking at a briefing for diplomatic reporters at the Foreign Ministry, Lieberman called the Palestinian leader "the greatest obstacle to a peace agreement. He is the problem."

Lieberman's comments come after a source told Haaretz this week that Abbas was in poor spirits and was threatening to resign. Senior Israeli officials say Abbas' distress stems from the prisoner exchange deal with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit, which strengthened Hamas; the deadlock in the peace process; and the lack of progress in the Palestinians' bid to become a UN member.

"If there is an obstacle that can be removed immediately, it's Abu Mazen [Abbas]," Lieberman said. "If he turns in the keys, that's not a threat. It's a blessing. Anyone who succeeds him would be better for Israel. Abu Mazen is interested only in himself and in the question of how he will be recorded in history as someone who brought about a Palestinian state and reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas."

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Abbas aide, fired back, calling Lieberman the "most extreme, racist person in Israel." According to Rabbo, "Lieberman is an enemy of peace and he should be condemned by every rational voice in Israel. If this position represents or reflects the policy of this government, that means that they intend to wage a political war. The Israeli government should apologize for what the foreign minister said."

Lieberman rejected criticism of Israel over construction in the settlements and said the blame the international community was placing on Israel for the diplomatic deadlock was hypocritical.

According to Lieberman, Abbas "is leading all the anti-Israel activity around the world: the complaint before the international court in The Hague, the condemnation at the United Nations and the boycotts. Just this week Abu Mazen gave a $5,000 grant to a terrorist who carried out the lynching in Ramallah [and] who was released in the Shalit deal." He was referring to the 2000 killing of two Israeli reservists.

The diplomatic stalemate is a missed opportunity; it is actually Israel's current right-wing government that the Palestinians could come to a peace deal with, Lieberman said. "The fact that Abu Mazen is running away from direct talks shows that he has no desire to come to an agreement," he said. "If Abu Mazen goes, there is a prospect of renewing the peace process."

Secret channel

In addition to Lieberman's criticism of Abbas, there are signs that the foreign minister is maintaining a secret channel with other Palestinians. According to U.S. State Department documents that were leaked to WikiLeaks, he suggested that Muhammad Rashid, an aide to former PA leader Yasser Arafat, is someone whom Lieberman could talk to.

Lieberman and Rashid, who is of Kurdish background, have a mutual friend in Austrian-Jewish businessman Martin Schlaff. "There are more than a few Palestinians who have studied in the West, and they're educated with Western values and they can be talked to," Lieberman said.

Haaretz reported yesterday on recommendations by defense officials that Israel make gestures to strengthen Abbas following the Shalit deal, which benefited Hamas. Lieberman rejected the idea, saying that such gestures are simply taken for granted and followed by other demands. He said he would oppose another halt to settlement construction.