Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman came to the defense of John Kerry on Friday, following a series of attacks on the U.S. Secretary of State by other senior figures in the Israeli cabinet. Lieberman said he supported Kerry’s efforts to move ahead on a framework document as a basis for continuing talks with the Palestinians, and took Economy Minister Naftali Bennett to task for assailing Kerry, saying that “the unity of the people is more important than the unity of the land.”
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Lieberman’s remarks, made during a speech to the Commercial and Industrial Business Club at the Tel Aviv Hilton, continued the relatively moderate line he has been espousing since returning to the post of foreign minister last November. His speech signaled that he supports accepting Kerry’s framework agreement.
Lieberman met with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro last Thursday and told him he was going to be making a speech supporting Kerry. A few hours after his speech, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said: “We certainly welcomed his remarks and his sentiment and the importance of the peace process, and it’s a reflection of, of course, the belief of many people in Israel that a two-state solution is the right outcome at the end of this process.”
Psaki said Lieberman’s message was a “powerful statement ... given his history and his background on these issues, and where his view was. We’ll see moving forward. It doesn’t mean there’s an end to opponents for a two-state solution, an end to opponents of a peace process, but certainly, we’re hopeful that we can get back to the focus on the difficult issues at hand.”
Lieberman’s remarks Friday joined those of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has also publicly defended Kerry.
Lieberman called Kerry “a true friend of Israel,” focusing his barbs at Bennett. “Where is the wisdom in turning friends into foes?” he asked. “John Kerry is leading the process correctly. We are now creating principles vis-a-vis the Americans on the basis of which to negotiate directly with the Palestinians.”
Lieberman also said there was nothing new about the fact that Israel did not agree with Kerry on every issue. “John Kerry is not a member of the settler council and he has a right to think differently than the screaming Naftali Bennett,” he said, adding that he sees Bennett “running to the microphones but I don’t see him running to the opposition.”
Lieberman added that he did not foresee the breakup of the coalition over the framework agreement, and that his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu – which is presently part of a joint Knesset faction with Likud – is against changing the coalition. “We will not lend a hand to coalition changes, and getting overexcited will not help. Things must calm down,” he said.
A number of people in the audience asked Lieberman what caused him to change his positions. Lieberman responded that in recent years his positions have been distorted to paint him as an extremist. “I wrote as far back as 2004 that between unity of the territories and unity of the people, I prefer unity of the people.”
Nevertheless, Lieberman said he was determined to implement his plan of exchanging territories and populations as part of a future permanent agreement. “Everyone who identifies with Hamas and Hezbollah and the Palestinian people should not be here,” he said.
Paraphrasing Theodor Herzl’s famous phrase, Lieberman added: “If we will it, it is no dream, and we can implement changes of territory and populations. The Geneva Initiative also referred to withdrawing residency permits of the Arabs of East Jerusalem,” the foreign minister said, referring to an Israeli-Palestinian NGO focusing on encouraging a peace agreement.
Meanwhile, Kerry told the Washington Post yesterday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could present objections to the framework agreement. Kerry said that some of the Palestinian and Israeli members of the negotiating teams said it would be a mistake to allow the presentation of objections, but that was “the only way for them to politically be able to keep the negotiations moving.”
Kerry added that for Netanyahu and Abbas “as leaders to be able to embrace an endgame, they need to have the right to be able to have some objection.” Kerry also said that Netanyahu had made clear to him that he did not want NATO troops in the Jordan Valley. However, the possibility of stationing a third party force in the region “is something for the parties to work out.”