Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Emil Salman
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After a wasted year, Israelis and Palestinians are beginning to walk hesitantly on the path meant to take them from indirect talks to direct negotiations, and finally to a permanent agreement. According to past experience, and knowing the people involved and the circumstances, the chances of success are not high, but Israel should have an interest in making a sincere effort and a creating a positive, hopeful atmosphere.

That will help restore faith in relations with the Palestinians and also to claim, if a crisis comes about, that it is not Israel's fault.

Right-wing ministers have barged headlong into this delicate situation, first and foremost Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, irritating the Palestinians and the world, particularly the Obama administration.

In yesterday's interview with Haaretz, Lieberman spoke rudely and disparagingly of the two most moderate senior Palestinians, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

He needled Abbas with a claim that hitherto had been heard from unofficial sources, that during Operation Cast Lead the Palestinian president asked Israel to continue military pressure to topple the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

As for Fayyad, who has designed a plan to establish Palestinian national institutions to lead to statehood within two years, even without Israel's approval, Lieberman attributed personal motives.

"I don't think now is the right time for talks [with Fayyad]," Lieberman said, the polar opposite of Israel's position. Lieberman took a haughty and aggressive tone toward Fayyad, who is seen internationally as a promising Palestinian leader. "I'm not interested in what Salam Fayyad declares," the foreign minister said.

Lieberman also claimed that "we've made many gestures and all we've gotten in response are slaps in the face." That is probably not true, and in any case Israel is not doing anyone any favors; it is acting according to its security and diplomatic interests.

The removal of roadblocks in the territories, in consultation with the defense establishment, did not bring about a new wave of terror attacks. Terror was thwarted by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, in unprecedented cooperation with the PA institutions acting under the leadership of Fayyad, whom Lieberman dismisses.

The new situation in the West Bank, so far from the situation in Gaza under Hamas, gives Palestinians a growing feeling of wellbeing and economic hope. But for that feeling to have real value, a diplomatic horizon is also needed, and that depends on a faltering process, which Lieberman is doing everything he can to foil.

Lieberman, in the guise of magnifying the significance of his post as one even world leaders ostensibly cannot ignore, takes pride in the intention of Egypt and France to boycott an international conference in Barcelona if an Israeli delegation is excluded. That is ridiculous false pride.

Of course we should not be happy about being excluded, but Lieberman himself brought this about by his statements and attitude. Foreign ministers are supposed to build bridges; he is burning them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accountable to the people of Israel. Who is in charge of foreign policy? Lieberman? Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who criticizes "senior ministers" of Lieberman's ilk? Or perhaps it is Netanyahu himself?

But which Netanyahu - the one who spoke at the White House, or the one who spoke at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva?