Wednesday, April 1, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s new hard-line foreign minister delivered a scathing critique of Mideast peace efforts Wednesday, 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.

Lieberman warned against broad concessions, saying they “only bring pressure and more wars.”

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 has called for stripping the citizenship of people who do not pledge loyalty to the state _ a proposal that was viewed as a thinly veiled swipe at Israel’s Arab minority.

His speech at the Foreign Ministry did little to ease those concerns.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Wednesday that new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “doesn’t believe in peace” and urged the international community to put heavy pressure on him.

Lieberman rejected the latest round of peace talks with Palestinians, which were launched by then-President George W. Bush in Annapolis, Maryland in late 2007.

“Nobody ever authorized Annapolis,” Lieberman said. Instead, he said he would accept an earlier peace plan _ the internationally backed road map.

The road map promoted a phased approach to peace-making and never got off the ground as Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of failing to meet their obligations.

In Annapolis, Israelis and Palestinians tried to get past this issue by pledging to address “final status” issues that would resolve decades of conflict once and for all by establishing an independent Palestinian state on lands currently occupied by Israel.

The speech was delivered at a handover ceremony attended by his predecessor, Tzipi Livni.

Livni, who was Israel’s chief negotiator in the Annapolis talks, grimaced throughout his speech, and at one time spoke up to disagree with him. Diplomats in the room shifted uncomfortably as he spoke.

His tough comments were sure to add to Palestinian discomfort with Netanyahu’s new government.

Netanyahu, who officially took office Wednesday, has said he will seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he has not outlined how that deal might look, and conspicuously refused to accept internationally backed Palestinian demands for an independent state.

“We want to tell the world that this man doesn’t believe in peace and therefore we cannot deal with him,” Abbas said. “The world should put pressure on him.”

It was the Palestinian president’s first public comment about Netanyahu since he took office. His statement, made at an Arab summit in Qatar, was reported by the government-run Palestinian news agency in the West Bank.

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