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Top Israeli diplomat: Don't rush us back to peace talks

JERUSALEM — Ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman has been Israel's foreign minister for a week, and his blunt, undiplomatic style already is threatening to overshadow the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In seven days, Lieberman has declared the death of 16-month-old U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians and said that those who wanted peace must prepare for war. He's dismissed Egyptian threats to bar him from visiting one of Israel's few Arab allies until he apologizes for incendiary comments he made last fall about President Hosni Mubarak and he's vowed to beat a deepening political-corruption investigation by Israeli police, who've questioned him three times since he took office.

In an interview Tuesday with McClatchy, Lieberman took more care with his words, saying that peace talks with the Palestinians are "deadlocked" and that the Obama administration shouldn't expect the new Israeli government to rush into new negotiations.

"We don't expect anyone to stand over us with a stopwatch," Lieberman said after delivering a speech to hundreds of supporters in Jerusalem. "Give us time to get organized and put together new ideas."

Lieberman said it was impossible to resume talks on creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel that then-President George W. Bush launched in Annapolis, Md., in November 2007 and President Barack Obama pointedly endorsed this week in Turkey.

"The situation is deadlocked, and it is not because of us," Lieberman said.

Lieberman said he planned to present that message next week to former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, Obama's special Mideast envoy, who'll return to Jerusalem on Monday for the first time since the new, center-right Israeli coalition government took power.

While Lieberman said he backed the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, his deputy foreign minister said the new government had no plans to move quickly on one of the most pivotal requirements in the American-backed "road map" for peace: immediately freezing the construction or expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Instead, echoing a long-standing and disputed Israeli interpretation of the road map, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon indicated that Palestinians would have to crack down harder on attacks against Israelis before Israel would freeze settlement construction or expansion in the West Bank, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"We should move forward as much as possible together," Ayalon told McClatchy. "But you cannot isolate one issue from another."

For eight years, the former Bush administration did little more than gently prod and politely criticize Israel over settlement construction, and speculation has been widespread that Obama, Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would put more pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank.

Confronting settlement expansion is more than an academic or political issue for Lieberman: He's the most prominent resident of Nokdim, a small settlement near Bethlehem that could become part of a future Palestinian state.

Lieberman's unapologetic style already is generating angst among pragmatists within the Israeli government, and with a cross-section of international leaders and political analysts.

"What is clear is that he is out there to destroy the last possibility of the two-state solution, and that's why I think, in many ways, he's an enemy of the state," said Neve Gordon, a political science professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. "Because if we don't have a two-state solution, it's full-blown apartheid."

The new Israeli government has prompted alarm in moderate Arab countries, and not just because of Lieberman. Other Netanyahu advisers have questioned whether an independent Palestinian state is a desirable goal, and some have proposed that Jordan assume responsibility for Palestinians in the West Bank.

"It is . . . important to refuse any attempt to change already agreed-upon international references concerning the settlement of the Palestinian issue," Jordan's King Abdullah II said last week at an Arab summit in Qatar.

The international consternation about Lieberman is most pronounced in neighboring Egypt, where Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said he had no plans to welcome his Israeli counterpart with open arms.

"He is a man who ought to reconsider how his brain communicates with his tongue," Abul Gheit told Egyptian television last week.

Members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood are pushing a bill that would bar Lieberman from visiting Egypt unless he apologizes for saying last year that President Mubarak could "go to hell" if he refused to visit Israel. The caustic remarks prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres to call Mubarak to apologize.

On Tuesday, Lieberman waved off the criticism and dismissed the Egyptian threats as unimportant.

"We are busy with other things," Lieberman told McClatchy.

One of Lieberman's other concerns is a political corruption probe of his business dealings. On Tuesday, Israeli police questioned him for the third time in a week about allegations of bribery and money laundering that have focused in part on a business that his young daughter set up a decade ago.

(McClatchy special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Aya Batrawy in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)


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