Israel's FM: Concessions Invite War

Israel's new hard-line foreign minister delivered a scathing critique of Mideast peace efforts Wednesday, rejecting the past year of U.S.-led negotiations and telling a room crowded with cringing diplomats that concessions to the Palestinians only invite war.

Avigdor Lieberman's first speech since taking office, along with accusations by the moderate Palestinian president that the new Israeli government opposes peace, signaled tough times ahead for the Obama administration's regional diplomacy.

"Whoever thinks that concessions ... will achieve something is wrong. He will bring pressures and more wars," Lieberman said. "What we have to explain to the world is that the list of priorities must change."

The appointment of Lieberman, head of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu, has raised international concerns because of his hard-line positions on peace and an election campaign that was widely seen as racist.

Lieberman's campaign proposal to strip the citizenship of people who do not pledge loyalty to the state and slogan that "only Lieberman understands Arabic" were viewed as thinly veiled swipes at Israel's Arab minority.

His speech at the Foreign Ministry only added to Palestinian trepidation over the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his first term as prime minister a decade ago, Netanyahu took a tough line in peace talks and frequently clashed with his Palestinian counterparts.

Netanyahu, who took office Wednesday, has tried to portray a softer image this time around, saying he will seek a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he has not outlined how that deal might look, and conspicuously refused to accept the Palestinian demand for an independent state on lands occupied by Israel.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair on stressed Wednesday that Palestinian statehood remains the key to peace in the region and warned of the consequences if negotiations are not vigorously pursued.

"We face a situation of very great jeopardy for the peace process," he told reporters in Brussels. "We need a combination of strong political negotiations toward a two-state solution and major change on the ground."

Establishment of a Palestinian state was endorsed by former President George W. Bush and is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's Mideast policy.

U.S. officials did not comment directly on Lieberman's speech but the White House also emphasized the statehood issue.

"The President has said many times that we are committed to the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking for the first time about the new Israeli government, urged the international community to put heavy pressure on Netanyahu.

"We want to tell the world that this man doesn't believe in peace and therefore we cannot deal with him," Abbas told an Arab summit in Qatar. His comments were reported by the official Palestinian news agency.

As Israel's face to the outside world, the brash, Moldovan-born Lieberman, who still speaks with a Russian accent, could have a difficult time changing minds about the government's intentions.

In his speech, Lieberman harshly criticized the U.S.-led peace talks launched by Bush in Annapolis, Maryland in 2007, saying the agreement has no bearing.

"Nobody ever authorized Annapolis," he said.

Instead, Lieberman said he would reluctantly accept an earlier peace plan known as the "road map."

The road map promoted a phased approach to peacemaking and never got off the ground as Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of failing to meet their obligations. The Annapolis process tried to get over this hump by jumping directly to all "final status" issues surrounding Palestinian independence.

"We will never agree to ... go straight to the final cause, which is negotiations for a final agreement. No. These concessions bring nothing," Lieberman said.

Officials in Netanyahu's office did not return messages seeking comment.

Lieberman spoke at a handover ceremony attended by his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, who was Israel's chief negotiator in the Annapolis talks. Livni grimaced throughout his speech, and at one time spoke up to disagree with him. Diplomats in the room shifted uncomfortably as he spoke.

"He came here with a clear political program and he now exposed what it was. This is what it's going to be," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Lieberman has generated controversy for more than a decade in politics.

Last October, he said that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, could "go to hell" because of his refusal to visit Israel. But in Wednesday's speech, he said Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, was an important ally.

"I would definitely like to visit Egypt and I would be happy for Egyptian leaders to visit here," he said.
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