May 9, 2009
By Barak Ravid
On his first trip to Europe since entering office, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman continues to lay out his diplomatic philosophy, arguing that a break from Israel’s past policies is necessary to stabilize the region.
“Nothing has come from this whole ‘peace industry’ except for conferences in five-star hotels and a waste of money,” Lieberman told his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, during their meeting in Rome on Monday.
Lieberman told Frattini that between five and seven years are needed to reach a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli foreign minister was pessimistic about the prospects of establishing a Palestinian state. He repeated his assertion that “two states for two peoples” had become a clichéd slogan that was tailored for newspaper headlines.
During his talks with Frattini, Lieberman also recalled his experiences living in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
“I’m a settler and I live in the Judean desert,” Lieberman told Frattini. “I speak with Palestinians who work near us and I hear that what they want is to earn a living and lead a decent life.”
Lieberman added that the Palestinians are dismissive of their leaders’ efforts to reach a political solution. It was at this point that the foreign minister delved into what he called “the peace industry.”
“This is a process with no results,” Lieberman said. “Everyone is earning a living off of it. There are conferences and there are meetings in five-star hotels. Do you know how much money has been spent on this? And what has come of it?”
Lieberman spoke glowingly of the “Cypriot model” ? which includes an exchange of populations – as a possible template for a solution to the Middle East impasse. In the 1970s, the Mediterranean island was partitioned in two, with Turks in the north and Greeks in the south. “Since then, there has been security, economic prosperity, and stability,” Lieberman said of Cyprus. “When we have [such a solution] in our region then we can talk about a political solution. Everything before this will simply fail.”
Lieberman told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that world powers should take action against Iran if it does not curb its controversial nuclear program by August.
“It is important that dialogue with Iran be limited in time, and if after three months it is clear the Iranians are prevaricating and not halting their nuclear program, the international community must take active steps,” an aide quoted Lieberman as telling Berlusconi.
Israel, which says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a mortal threat, has endorsed Western efforts to engage its arch-foe in talks. But Israeli leaders have also hinted at pre-emptive military strikes if they decide that diplomacy has failed.
Other Israeli officials have said that the UN Security Council, which has already passed sanctions against Iran, should consider imposing more crippling measures.
Lieberman’s statement was the first time Netanyahu’s government has publicly signaled a timeline for action against Iran.
Iran, seen by Netanyahu as a real threat to Israel and a top priority, also was discussed during the meeting between Lieberman and Kouchner, who explained that France and its partners were doing all they can to get Tehran to suspend its nuclear program.
Iran denies seeking nuclear arms and has so far shrugged off foreign pressure. Six world powers led by the United States have invited it to talks, but contacts have so far been limited, and Iran has continued to insist it will not give up uranium enrichment, which it says is for power generation.
Israel says the enrichment program could provide enough fissile material for a bomb with months. American assessments say that threshold may be years away.
In Italy Lieberman stressed that the new Israeli government was still developing its foreign policy, which Netanyahu is expected to unveil before talks with American President Barack Obama in mid-May.
After Lieberman arrived in Paris from Rome, pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted his motorcade as he was entering the ministry. The right-wing politician has frayed some diplomatic nerves with statements viewed as anti-Arab.
An Associated Press Television News cameraman on the scene said two demonstrators dressed as tourists blocked the street just as Lieberman’s motorcade was pulling onto ministry grounds. Riot police were seen detaining two people and chasing others away from the ministry.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman Tuesday that restarting Middle East peace talks is urgent and that building new Israeli settlements must end.
Kouchner delivered the message while meeting with Lieberman on his first tour of Europe since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government took office April 1.
Kouchner recalled the expectations of France, in particular the creation of a viable Palestinian state coexisting in peace and security with Israel, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the talks. He also asked for a complete halt to settlement building, the statement said.
France also stressed the need for a permanent reopening to passages to the Gaza Strip to ease the economic and humanitarian situation there.
Lieberman made no comments after the meeting, and journalists were asked to leave the ministry.