- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TEL AVIV

Avigdor Lieberman is poised to become Israel’s next foreign minister in a coalition under Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, raising questions about whether his reputation for blunt anti-Arab statements could further complicate Israeli diplomacy and prospects for peace.

Tapping into the rightward shift in the Israeli electorate, Mr. Lieberman’s ultranationalist Israel Is Our Home party came in third in parliamentary elections after waging a campaign questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country’s 7.3 million people.

“He’s a straight talker, and he says what many Israelis think,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. “That might not be the greatest quality for a foreign minister.”

Mr. Netanyahu asked outgoing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party to join the new government. But Kadima, which edged out Likud by one seat to win the biggest delegation in the new parliament, has balked so far.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he considers as “racism” Mr. Lieberman’s proposal to redraw Israel’s boundaries by ceding areas with an Arab majority to a Palestinian state. He added that he doesn’t consider Mr. Lieberman a man of peace because “peace begins at home.”

There is also the question of whether Egyptians, Jordanians and other Arabs will agree to meet with Mr. Lieberman.

“If this is the face of Israel on the international arena, a politician who ran an anti-Arab campaign in the elections, then God be with us!” said a Middle Eastern diplomat in Washington, who asked not to be named because he had not cleared the comment with his government.

However, Mr. Erekat said that if the new government commits itself to a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict and a freeze on Jewish settlements, Palestinians would receive Mr. Lieberman as a peace interlocutor.

“I can’t control how Israelis vote,” Mr. Erekat said. “We all have the capacity for racism: Muslims, Jews and Christians.”

Mr. Lieberman has become notorious in Israel for insulting Israeli-Arab lawmakers, calling them representatives of “terrorist” groups. He has also accused Egypt of lying about efforts to stop smuggling into Gaza and called on the Israeli government to retake the strip of land along the Gaza-Egypt border.

However, his views are in some respects to the left of Mr. Netanyahu. Though he supports redrawing Israel’s borders to exclude Arab majority municipalities, he has backed a two-state solution that would cede Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

“If Lieberman chooses as foreign minister to explain moving the border to exclude Wadi Ara [a predominantly Arab area] from the State of Israel, he’s going get into trouble,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of an online Israeli Palestinian opinion forum, Bitter Lemons. But if he says, ” ‘I support a two-state solution with Arabs on one side and Jews on the other,’ then he’ll be OK, so it’s up to him.”

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