At UN, Lieberman Touts Territory Swap, Says Deal Could Take Decades

PM says he didn't see speech beforehand, but doesn't reject the idea

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed an "exchange of populated territory" in a speech before the UN General Assembly yesterday, effectively presenting his party platform to the world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose policy Lieberman said was not realistic, said he had not seen the speech in advance - but did not reject the proposal.

Lieberman at UN - Reuters - Sept 28, 2010

"Prime Minister Netanyahu is conducting the negotiations on behalf of the State of Israel," the Prime Minister's Bureau said in a statement. "The subjects of a peace settlement will be discussed and decided only around the negotiating table and nowhere else."

But sources close to Netanyahu have privately said he doesn't consider Lieberman's views to be illegitimate and does not intend to chastise him for the speech.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is due to meet with U.S. envoy George Mitchell this morning in an effort to break the impasse over whether to extend the moratorium on settlement construction, which officially expired Sunday. The Obama administration wants Netanyahu to extend the freeze.

Lieberman suggested ceding parts of Israel with large Arab populations to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Israel keeping large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

"The guiding principle for a final-status agreement must not be 'land for peace' but rather, exchange of populated territory," Lieberman said in his speech. "I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities."

Parts of Israel that would be handed over under Lieberman's plan include Arab towns in Wadi Ara, Tira and Umm al-Fahm.

Lieberman also raised the possibility of aiming for a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians, rather than a final-status one, but warned that this "could take a few decades."

In Israel, Lieberman presented his plan during the last general election campaign, as part of the broader political platform of Yisrael Beiteinu, and he has since discussed it in speeches and interviews.

But this was the first time he presented his ideas so comprehensively before at such an international forum, where comments made by the foreign minister of a country are seen as representing that country's official position.

Netanyahu's advisers tried to downplay the embarrassment caused by Lieberman's speech, saying a coalition government would be impossible without Lieberman and that ministers can express their personal opinions even in international arenas.

"The international community is aware that this is not the position of the government," one of the advisers said.

Sources close to Netanyahu said Lieberman had raised the views expressed at the UN address during meetings of the senior ministers, but that his proposals have never been accepted as official government policy.

"The official government policy is the Bar-Ilan speech [which calls for a two-state solution] and moving to a permanent settlement within a year, and that is what counts," one of the sources said.

In an apparent attempt to indicate that Netanyahu has charge of the peace talks, the Prime Minister's Bureau issued a statement that provided an update on his talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday night.

"I hope that my good talks with Abu Mazen [Abbas] will continue," Netanyahu said in the statement. "This is essential and I believe it will be possible to reach a framework agreement within a year and to change history in the Middle East."

Netanyahu also accepted an invitation by Sarkozy to visit Paris in October for a joint summit with Abbas.

Shlomo Shamir adds:

Lieberman's speech also outraged many American Jews, and some Jewish leaders demanded his resignation.

"If Lieberman can't keep his personal opinions to himself, he ought to resign from the cabinet," said Seymour Reich, a former president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

"Every time Foreign Minister Lieberman voices his skepticism about achieving peace, he undermines Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's credibility," agreed another New York Jewish leader. "Lieberman gives Abu Mazen [Abbas] and the Arab League an opportunity to reinforce their claim that Netanyahu isn't serious."

But Abraham Foxman, the long-time head of the Anti-Defamation League, told Haaretz that Lieberman's positions were not completely at odds with Netanyahu's policy, given the prime minister's stated view that implementation of any peace agreement would have to be spread out over a number of years.

"Lieberman explained that the conflict will not be solved within a year and that implementation of the peace agreement will take generations," Foxman said.