Barak Says Lieberman’s Letter Calling for Abbas’ Ouster Harms Israeli Interests

In closed discussion, defense minister attempts to dispel impression that Israel seeks to intervene in Palestinian politics: 'Abbas is no Zionist... but to suggest that we should try to oust him - that's a strange idea.'

In closed discussions Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sharply criticized Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s letter to foreign ministers from the Middle East Quartet, calling for Palestinian Authority elections to replace PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

“This letter harms Israeli national interests, and will aggravate circumstances with the Palestinians. This is deeply misguided policy,” Barak stated in the private discussion.

On Wednesday, Haaretz exposed the letter sent by Lieberman to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In his letter, Lieberman referred to a “dictatorial government riddled with corruption” in the PA, and described Abbas as an obstacle to peace. He proposed staging new PA elections to bring about a Palestinian leadership that would be “more legitimate and realistic.”

During the closed discussion on Wednesday, Barak sought to dispel the impression which, in his view, Lieberman’s letter stirred − that Israel harbors intentions to intervene in Palestinian politics. “There is no need to tell neighbors when they need to hold elections, or whom they need to elect,” declared Barak. “And should elections be held, perhaps Abbas would be re-elected.”

Barak elaborated that since the establishment of the Netanyahu government, he has never attended a meeting in which a policy position was advocated that bore any resemblance to the one articulated by Lieberman in his letter. “The policy stance described in Lieberman’s letter is liable to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Barak said. “Lieberman wants Abbas to leave office, but what’s the alternative? There is no Norwegian-type liberal party to replace him. What would likely take power would be Hamas. That would be better for Israel?”

As Barak privately distanced himself from the Lieberman letter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a clarification regarding the status of his foreign minister’s missive.

“The foreign minister’s letter does not represent the position of the prime minister or that of the government,” said a senior official in Netanyahu’s office. “The prime minister agrees that Abu Mazen ‏(Abbas‏) creates difficulties in negotiations but he intends on continuing efforts to promote dialogue with the Palestinians,” the official said. The Prime Minister’s Office also stressed that “Israel does not intervene in internal politics in other places.”

The Palestinians on Wednesday condemned Lieberman’s letter. Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Abbas, said Lieberman’s letter to the foreign ministers of the Middle East Quartet is “incitement” that brings on an “atmosphere of violence and instability.”

According to a senior Israeli official, Barak regularly receives written and oral assessments prepared by army intelligence officers, the Shin Bet security service and the coordinator of government activities in the territories that warn about the implications of a continued impasse in the peace process.

Over the past three months, Barak has asked Netanyahu several times to convene a sustained discussion in the political-security cabinet about the standstill with the Palestinians. Barak reiterated this request at the government meeting two weeks ago.

As September approaches, the Palestinians are gearing up for a maneuver at the UN General Assembly, in continuation of the statehood campaign they launched in the UN Security Council last September. Despite such preparations, the Netanyahu government has yet to schedule a formal discussion of the diplomatic outlook with the Palestinians.

During his discussion on Wednesday, Barak acknowledged that Abbas is largely responsible for the impasse in the peace process. Earlier this week Barak phoned Abbas and sent his best wishes for the end of Ramadan festivities.

During this conversation, Barak tried to persuade the Palestinian leader to desist from his opposition to resuming negotiations with Israel. Abbas refuses to resume peace with talks with Israel unless Netanyahu agrees to the pre-1967 borders with land swaps, along with a settlement freeze.

Barak emphasized that Abbas refrains from the use of terror, and is building a security apparatus that coordinates activities with Israel to preempt terror attacks. “Life is a matter of alternatives,” Barak said. “Abbas is no Zionist. He is not a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. We have criticism of his actions regarding incitement and other matters, but to suggest that we should try to oust him − that’s a strange idea.”

A senior source in the Foreign Ministry said that Lieberman, in a meeting Tuesday with 20 senior Israeli ambassadors, said he had written the letter because he sensed that his messages on the Palestinian issue were not being properly conveyed to Western countries.

His letter was the peak of a campaign he has been conducting in the past year to delegitimize Abbas, but it is the first time he has suggested a concrete process for removing him, such as holding new elections. Lieberman did not claim Abbas is involved in terror attacks against Israel, but stressed that he is acting against Israel in legal and diplomatic arenas.