Lieberman: Sarkozy's remark was a 'regrettable' verbal slip
FM says it would be conflict of interest for him to discuss settlements with U.S. because of his residency.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had made a "slip of the tongue" by calling for his dismissal, but that he was not disturbed by the remark.
Lieberman also dismissed what Israeli commentators call a snub by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has given Defense Minister Ehud Barak a mandate to narrow a rift with Washington over settlement building in the West Bank.
Neither Sarkozy nor Netanyahu have confirmed Israeli media reports last week that the French leader had told the Israeli during talks in Paris on June 24 to "get rid of" Lieberman as foreign minister.
Israel's Channel Two television and several newspapers said that Sarkozy had compared Lieberman, whose party has introduced legislation to curb the rights of Arab citizens, with French far-rightist Jean Marie Le Pen.
"People tend to say unnecessary things, including myself," Lieberman told reporters in parliament who asked him about Sarkozy's remarks.
"I relate to it as a regrettable slip of the tongue," said Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, Israel's third largest faction, said. "I'm not very excited by it."
A spokesman for Lieberman had denounced the reports of Sarkozy's comments as amounting to "intolerable" meddling in Israeli affairs, but Lieberman himself had avoided any comment before Monday's meeting of his parliamentary faction.
Lieberman has been accused of racism by Israel's Arab citizens for introducing legislation that could curb their rights. He has also said their towns be ceded to Palestinian jurisdiction in exchange for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The reports about Sarkozy's purported remarks had put a spotlight on a rift between Israel and Western countries over Netanyahu's rejection of calls to stop settlement building in land captured in a 1967 war which Palestinians want for a state.
Conflict of interest
Lieberman also said Monday that he had deliberately chosen to avoid taking part in the debate over West Bank settlement, as his own residence in a settlement would pose a conflict of interest.
"As far as I am concerned, there is a conflict of interest when someone who lives in a settlement, in an isolate town that is not even counted among the settlements, takes part in the issue," he said.
"I would not want to be accused of this when I have made it a calculated choice not to engage in negotiations on the issue with the Americans," he said. U.S.-Israeli relations are "more important than the will of a foreign minister," Lieberman said.
"There is no alternative to our relationship with the U.S., but we will never give up our red lines," he added.
Lieberman has come under fire of late for demanding to be made responsible for ties with the U.S., while Defense Minister Ehud Barak has actually taken charge of negotiations over construction in West Bank settlements.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy also urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "rid himself" of Lieberman, who is seen as hawkish and hardline. Netanyahu and Barak have both come to Lieberman's defense in the face of public criticism.