Netanyahu office
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his government office. Photo by Lior Mizrahi
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's hard-line remarks about Turkey on Sunday were merely his personal opinion. "He does not humiliate me," Netanyahu added.

"Under the Israeli system of government, ministers can always express their opinion," Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 10. "In other governments, foreign ministers and prime ministers, sometimes even from the same party, express different opinions. The opinion that is binding is the one that is determined in cabinet decisions, and that is the one expressed by the prime minister."

On Sunday, Lieberman attacked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, accusing them of spreading lies about Israel. These remarks raised a firestorm yesterday among Knesset members in the Labor Party. Labor MKs demanded that Labor's chairman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, issue a strong condemnation of Lieberman's remarks and demand that Netanyahu take steps against him.

Lieberman yesterday sought to clarify the statements he had made Sunday at a meeting with Israeli ambassadors, but contrary to expectations, he did not moderate them. He mentioned the welcome rally in Istanbul for a ship in the Gaza flotilla in May that was attacked by Israeli naval commandos.

"What took place yesterday in Turkey - with an inflamed crowd taking to the streets and shouting 'death to Israel' and we don't hear a peep out of the political leadership - that's intolerable." Lieberman criticized Israel's restraint, adding sarcastically: "Maybe they'll ask us to bring back the British Mandate."

Regarding diplomatic talks, Lieberman said: "Things are clear. The State of Israel has done the maximum for talks." Lieberman said his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, had a hard time accepting Netanyahu's speech last year at Bar-Ilan University in which he called for a two-state solution, but that the party had accepted it.

"And what is the result?" Lieberman asked. "I think we did our part. If the Palestinians want to talk, ahalan wasahalan," he said, using the Arabic expression for "welcome." "After Annapolis and Gush Katif, you have to use common sense," the foreign minister added, referring to the 2007 peace conference and Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu told Channel 10 the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate with Israel was the reason he has not presented a diplomatic plan. "If the Palestinians would recognize the Jewish state and abandon the idea of the right of return, I state here and now that I will go with it to the end and no coalition consideration will stop me," he said.

"There could well be a situation that if we enter into talks with the Palestinians and we hit a wall on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, the result would be an interim agreement," Netanyahu said. He said the forum of seven senior ministers had discussed this possibility over the past two years.

Netanyahu's remarks come amid the plan being put together by Lieberman for a long-term interim arrangement with the Palestinians. Lieberman has presented the plan to Netanyahu in broad strokes and wants to discuss it in the forum of seven senior ministers and in diplomatic-security cabinet.

On the matter of Turkey, Netanyahu toed Lieberman's line, saying that he is not prepared to apologize to Turkey for the events involving the Gaza flotilla.

"We don't want to apologize," Netanyahu said. "We are willing to express regret over the loss of human life and we want first of all to protect the soldiers who are being accused of war crimes. We want Turkish recognition that Israel did not act maliciously and that the soldiers acted in self-defense."

Netanyahu said the gaps between Turkey and Israel on this issue were still great. "We are continuing to try, and it is in our interest to try to solve it, but public discussion of the matter doesn't help," he said.

Netanyahu said the problem is that Turkey had turned toward the Muslim world as relations with Israel took a turn for the worse. "I hope we can stop this deterioration," he said.

Regarding the recent escalation in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said he believed that Israel's deterrence against Hamas and the other terror groups was still strong. "Our enemies know not to trifle with me. If they fire, the response comes immediately," he said.

When asked about the status of negotiations over the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu said: "There is no freeze in talks for his release." He said attempts were being made to reach an agreement on Shalit's release but "other solutions are also being studied."