- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s former chief peace negotiator said Thursday that a scathing rejection of recent negotiations by the country’s new foreign minister shows the new government is not a partner for peace with the Palestinians.

In a speech delivered the day he took on his job as top diplomat, hard-line politician Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that Israeli concessions would only bring more war and rejected peace talks with the Palestinians that the previous government began at a U.S.-sponsored conference in 2007.

That drew criticism from his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, who was the country’s top negotiator in those talks and is now leader of the political opposition.

“What happened yesterday is that the Israeli government announced that Israel isn’t relevant, isn’t a partner,” Livni told Army Radio.

She said hard-line parties have in the past avoided peace efforts with the “pathetic excuse” that there was no partner on the other side. “From today, Israel has announced that it is not a partner,” she said.

The appointment of the ultranationalist Lieberman has angered Palestinians and raised international concerns because of his hard-line positions on peace and an election campaign that was widely seen as racist. His comments on Wednesday signaled a difficult road ahead for President Barack Obama’s Mideast policy, especially its push for a Palestinian state.

“Whoever thinks that concessions … will achieve something is wrong. He will bring pressures and more wars,” Lieberman told an audience that included visibly agitated Israeli diplomats. “What we have to explain to the world is that the list of priorities must change.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Lieberman early Thursday, according to Lieberman spokeswoman Irena Etinger. The conversation was conducted in a “good atmosphere,” and the two agreed to meet as soon as possible, Etinger said. She would not say what issues were discussed.

The new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who took a tough line in peace talks in his first term as premier a decade ago, has tried to portray a softer image this time around.

Netanyahu’s government “is committed to peace with our Arab neighbors and with the Palestinians in particular,” government spokesman Mark Regev said. “If the Palestinian leadership is serious, progress is obtainable.”

Netanyahu has said 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.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Lieberman’s remarks were an insult to the world powers pushing for peace.

“He has slammed the door in the face of the U.S. and the international community,” Erekat said. “It seems to me that this is President Obama’s first real test.”

A close Netanyahu ally, Cabinet minister Gilad Erdan, said Thursday that Lieberman’s comments reflected the position of the prime minister’s Likud Party, which did not accept the peace talks launched at Annapolis, Maryland, in late 2007 by the previous government.

Lieberman said he supported another U.S. plan, known as the “road map,” which 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.

In an interview Wednesday with Israel’s Channel 2 TV, Lieberman said he also opposed any withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Syria.

“I am very much in favor of peace with Syria, but only on one basis _ peace in return for peace,” he said, adding there would be “no withdrawals from the Golan during my time and hopefully not at any time.”

Syria has said there will be no peace until Israel returns the Golan _ a strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

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