US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem today, seeking to shore up a recently renewed, but already flagging, round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that the talks would be called off in about a week if Israel doesn't extend a settlement freeze – a move the US had demanded as a confidence-building measure but now appears to be backing away from.
But even as Mitchell scrambled in Jerusalem, comments from Mr. Netanyahu's gadfly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman laid bare stark disagreements within the Israeli elite. Such disagreement call into question the feasibility of President Barack Obama's one-year timeline for a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
Speaking at the UN on Tuesday, Mr. Lieberman – who leads the second-largest party in Netanyahu's coalition government – said a peace deal could take decades.
He also proposed a land swap in which predominantly Arab areas inside Israel could be incorporated into a future Palestinian state in exchange for the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank – a proposal sharply at odds with Netanyahu's stated approach. The proposal received a predictably outraged response from Palestinian leaders.
Lack of unity on both sides
Lack of unity on both sides is a key theme that makes it hard to see fast progress for Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian's internal divide, with Hamas controlling Gaza and opposed to the current talks, is mirrored by Israel's own.
Hawks like Lieberman who argue the Palestinians are uninterested in peace, are arrayed against both the country's more conciliatory peace camp and Netanyahu, caught between US pressure and his coalition partners.
Lieberman spoke of the "utter lack of confidence between the sides and issues such as Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and refugees" and said "under these conditions, we should focus on coming up with a long-term intermediate agreement, something that could take a few decades.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded by saying Lieberman doesn't speak for the government. Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman from Mr. Barak's Labor Party called on Netanyahu to fire the foreign minister, telling the Jerusalem Post that "Lieberman's delusional speech was well-planned and was intended to heat up the atmosphere and harm the peace process. This adds to a long list of incidents in which Lieberman tried to undermine the prime minister."
Netanyahu himself put some distance between himself and Lieberman, while not fully repudiating his views. "Lieberman's address was not coordinated with the prime minister," Netanyahu's office said in a statement "The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else."
Lieberman's position nothing new
Mr. Lieberman's comments are only surprising because of the venue and timing.
His party platform calls for a simiiar swap to remove most of the Palestinian population from the Jewish state, and it's a position he has touted since at least 2004. He has also mooted stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship if they don't take a loyalty oath, and described Arab-Israeli members of parliament who met with Hamas officials as "terror collaborators."
Netanyahu put on a brave face ahead of his meeting with Mr. Mitchell today, saying he looked forward to ongoing talks with Mr. Abbas. "The only way that it is certain we won't achieve peace is if we don't try to achieve peace. I am committed to peace and my government is committed to peace," he said.
Nevertheless, Lieberman's comments reverberated in an atmosphere where distrust is often the easiest course for both sides.
Lieberman reinforces Palestinian distrust
Many Palestinians believe that ongoing settlement construction is part of a plan to claim a larger swath of territory for Israel in any eventual peace deal, and see Lieberman's powerful position in the government as evidence that negotiations won't lead to an agreement any time soon on the borders of two states and the return of roughly 1 million refugees living abroad.
"He provided a very, very clear reason for all our skepticism,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told Bloomberg News. Lieberman "reflects a segment of the Israeli society which wants to get rid of all Christian and Muslim Israeli Palestinians. This is why we are afraid of the settlement policy."