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Israel's Lieberman tweaks Turkey. Is he flanking Netanyahu?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Turkey in an apparent attempt to outflank Prime Minister Netanyahu on the right and pick up support from hardline nationalists disillusioned with the peace process.

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Lieberman for prime minister?

Political observers in Israel believe Lieberman's comments reflect an attempt to outflank Netanyahu on the right and one day run for prime minister. Netanyahu's spokesman said that the foreign minister's remarks on Sunday reflected Lieberman's personal opinions rather than official Israeli policy.

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Even though friction is common in Israel between prime ministers and foreign ministers, the two seem more publicly at odds over policy than usual.

In his speech to the Israeli diplomatic corps on Sunday, Lieberman revisited the harsh criticism of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he aired at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Lieberman assailed Netanyahu's stated goal of reaching a final treaty with the Palestinians by next year and belittled the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as an illegitimate government not capable of being a party to a peace treaty. He also said that he is working on an alternative peace initiative based on a long-term interim agreement.

"In one speech, which many found to be delusional, Lieberman said what many people in Israel think quietly – and so earned support for his opinions and his party,'' wrote Eitan Haber, in a column for the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Lieberman considerably embarrassed the prime minister – one might even say humiliated him – made him look like an empty vessel,'' he continued.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized Lieberman's speech, arguing that Israel needs to find a way to put the clash with Turkey in the past.

The Israeli foreign minister is hoping to reach out to hardliners disillusioned with Netanyahu for supporting a two state solution and a for a short time a moratorium on settlement expansion in the West Bank. Reports that Netanyahu was mulling a reconciliation deal with Turkey also kicked up domestic criticism.

"Netanyahu is seen by Israelis as moving a lot more to the political center by embracing a Palestinan state and freezing construction, which was taken by Israelis as very serious steps away from his right wing background," says Gil Hoffman, a political columnist for the Jerusalem Post. "Lieberman is still loyal. And out of all the politicians to the right of Netanyahu, he's the most popular."

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