- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Israel’s new foreign minister got off to a provocative start Wednesday by rejecting peace negotiations started by the Bush administration to establish the contours of a Palestinian state.

Avigdor Lieberman said Israel’s new government will suspend negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on so-called “final-status” issues - the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the city of Jerusalem - until the Palestinians take verifiable steps to end attacks against Israelis.

With the statement, the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed the policy of its predecessor, led by Ehud Olmert, which had been quietly attempting to negotiate a final settlement of the conflict with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the past 14 months.

The shift could cause problems with the Obama administration, which has set as a priority a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“We are committed to working vigorously for this two-state solution as we believe it to be in our national security interest and in the security interest of Israel and the region,” White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said.

“We look forward to working with the new Israeli government and understand that we will have frank discussions, and that these discussions will be based on an underlying shared commitment to Israel and its security,” he said.

Mr. Lieberman said his government will not be bound by agreements reached at a 2007 summit of Israeli and Arab leaders in Annapolis and signaled skepticism about the peace process in general.

“Sixteen years have passed since [the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians], and I do not see that we are any closer to a permanent settlement. There is one document that binds us, and it is not the Annapolis conference. That has no validity,” he said.

Mr. Lieberman said Israel would abide by an earlier George W. Bush administration product: the April 2003 “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” which laid out a three-phase, conditioned process to create a Palestinian state.

The so-called road map required Israel to freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza but also demanded that the Palestinian Authority change its constitution, end support for terrorism and establish an effective government before it could get an independent state.

The road map’s deadline for the creation of that state was 2005. One reason President Bush changed course in 2007 was because the deadline had passed and the militant group Hamas had taken control of the Gaza Strip in June of that year.

Mr. Lieberman made clear that it would be a long time, in his view, before political negotiations could resume.

“We will therefore act exactly according to that document, the road map. … I will never agree to our waiving all the clauses - I believe there are 48 of them - and going directly to the last clause, negotiations on a permanent settlement,” Mr. Lieberman said.

The comments are likely to add to the controversy about Mr. Lieberman, who has called for all Israelis to take a loyalty oath and suggested that if a Palestinian state is created, it should include parts of Israel with predominantly Arab populations.

However, there are also few defenders of the so-called Annapolis process, which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said clarified many final-status issues but failed to reach any agreements.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s new deputy foreign minister, told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the Annapolis process took “the road map and put it on its head.”

“Not only is this against the inner logic of the road map, but also it has proven not only not to be constructive, in fact it was damaging, no solution has been found and there is more violence,” he said.

Mr. Ayalon also stressed that Mr. Lieberman and the new Israeli government support a two-state solution within the context of the road map.

Mr. Lieberman’s comments appeared to be harsher than those of Mr. Netanyahu, who on Tuesday committed to talks with the Palestinian Authority but said he would stress economic issues first.

“We will conduct continuous negotiations for peace with the PA aspiring to achieve a permanent agreement,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Other Israeli officials, however, confirmed Wednesday that the final-status negotiations would be suspended.

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush who helped coordinate Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, said he did not interpret Mr. Lieberman’s remarks as a rejection of the two-state solution.

“The interesting question to me is: What is Lieberman saying? He is not saying that Israel has no commitment to the two-state solution. He may be saying that he does not want to be bound by immediate final-status talks. It seems to me that there is no basis here for a fight between the United States and Israel because everything we really want in policy is in the road map.”

Asked about this, Mr. Ayalon confirmed that Mr. Lieberman was rejecting the final-status talks with Mr. Abbas that emerged from the 2007 Annapolis conference.

Mr. Lieberman’s political party, Israel Our Home, supports an Israeli and Palestinian state and the withdrawal of some West Bank settlements. It has also endorsed a plan to require Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose the state to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of keeping their voting rights.

This proposal was not included in the agreement creating Israel’s new coalition government.

In 2004, Mr. Lieberman quit the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over opposition to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Mr. Lieberman’s comments Wednesday suggest that if and when peace talks with the Palestinians ever begin, Mr. Netanyahu will take the lead in negotiations as well as in U.S.-Israel relations.

Tamara Cofman-Wittes, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, noted, however, that tensions between the Obama administration and Mr. Netanyahu are already brewing.

“What I found interesting was the reaction from the White House to reiterate the two-state vision,” she said. “I am not predicting an instant confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem on this issue. I am suggesting if the Obama administration was waiting to hear the new approach from the Israelis before laying out a diplomatic initiative, it is now clear they have a steep hill to climb.”

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