Jeffrey Feltman, Is the U.S. Ignoring Avigdor Lieberman?

An interview with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

Jeffrey Feltman is the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He has a long history in the Middle East, having served as ambassador to Lebanon, twice at the embassy in Tel Aviv, and a stint at the consulate in Jerusalem.

Jeffrey Feltman Oct. 17, 2010 (Reuters)

Coming right off a trip to Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Feltman was in Paris to help prepare a planned summit between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas Thursday - a meeting that did not take place.

There was meant to be a summit here - and yet it was cancelled. Tell me, is France being helpful with these initiatives, or is it butting in? Were the Americans upset with this sideshow or supportive of it? And why was it all called off?

"France’s role is not just helpful, it is essential. We had anticipated the Secretary participating in the summit today and we welcome opportunities to bring the parties together. As it happens, the parties were not ready to talk right now, so it does not have to do with Paris."

Why is Senator Mitchell here all the time? He is here probably as frequently as he is in Jerusalem or Ramallah.

"That’s because we recognize the shared interest France and US have… in getting to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, anchored in a two state solution but that also includes Syria and Lebanon. We need to work together.

I was ambassador to Lebanon 2004-2008 and I saw up close and personal how important France’s role is. There was no diplomat in the time I was there who played as strong as role as the French ambassador did. So I think all of us who work in this area recognize the weight that France has in these issues."

When you say the time is not right for meeting now - well, what is the time right for?

We are not just talking for talking sake. We have to make sure the negotiations are done in a type of atmosphere that is going to create progress. There is great disillusionment on the sides of the Israeli and Palestinian people…there is distrust between some of the leadership and we have to come up with the atmosphere that can overcome that. We have to try together to create the political conditions that then create successful negotiations

What about the settlement building? How is this working for the conditions?

"Our position on settlements is unchanged from administration to administration and President Obama has said that we don’t accept the legitimacy of ongoing settlement activity. But the more general point is that we think both sides need to be taking steps to build trust, not to undermine it."

What sort of steps do you suggest the Palestinians need to be taking?

"They need to be thinking about how to address what are very real security concerns on the Israeli side. I think people look at the examples of Gaza and Lebanon - these are not perfect examples, they were unilateral withdrawals - but nevertheless the experience is such that the Israelis are probably looking at a two state solution and wanting to know - is this going to improve their security or worsen it. The Palestinians need to start thinking about how to address those issues seriously just as the Israelis need to start thinking of how to address the Palestinians territorial and sovereignty aspirations."

And how about our Foreign Minister? Some might say he is not addressing those Palestinian aspirations too well. Where do you weigh in on this?

"Well, at the end, Prime Minister Netanyahu is head of the government and head of the coalition. He has stated publically that his aim is a two state solution. He has said, in the White House, that President Abbas is his partner. He is the one, in our view, who is setting the policies that coincide with our national interest to get to a two state solution."

So you are saying, lets just ignore Lieberman?

"Well, in terms of the negotiations, the prime minster is the one who sets the agenda."

What can you tell us about your trip to Lebanon? What did you learn there about Ahmadinajad’s visit and about the Hariri assassination investigation? What’s the mood there?

"Lebanon right now is going through a difficult period. This is something that is related to the internal dynamics of Lebanon, not to the conflict with Israel.

What is happening now is there are some people in Lebanon saying, you have to chose between justice – as symbolized by the special tribunal for Lebanon—and stability. In our mind that is an artificial choice. The people saying this are the very ones trying to destabilize Lebanon now. The reason I went to Lebanon was to deliver a message from Obama which was a reaffirmation of our strong support for Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. What we are trying to do is to find a way to lower the tensions and reduce the temperature in Lebanon."

What about Syria? How are your relations with them going? And they ready or interested in talking with Israel?

"We are engaging with Syria - President Obama is committed to using engagement as a diplomatic tool - and we are trying to see if they can become a constructive player. Our relations with Syria are not easy. The differences between the Syrians and the Americans are great - but nonetheless it is in our interest to get to a comprehensive peace and Styria, by definition, is part of that equation."

Is there any improvement in relations you can report?

"For a number of reasons, there is distrust between Washington and Damascus. We are taking modest steps that can reassure the Syrians that we are serious about seeing whether, together, we can start to build a constructive relationship and they have taken some modest steps in our direction. But there are a lot of big issues that divide us. I don’t want to be naïve here, and say just because we are using engagement all of these big issues are going to disappear."