TEL AVIV // Israel's foreign minister yesterday demanded that Israel cut off all its contacts with the Palestinian Authority, which he accused of preparing for unprecedented "bloodshed" as part of its bid to gain international recognition of its independent statehood.
Avigdor Lieberman, the second most-powerful official in the predominantly right-wing ruling coalition, told reporters that he planned to raise his demand for curtailing ties with the Palestinian leadership at a meeting of the so-called inner cabinet, which includes the coalition's top eight ministers. He did not say when the meeting would take place.
"The Palestinian Authority is getting ready for bloodshed on a scale we haven't seen," Mr Lieberman, the head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, said. "The more they speak about non-violent action, the more they are preparing for bloodshed."
The top Israeli diplomat, however, provided no proof of his assertions, although his spokesman later claimed they were drawn from intelligence reports and statements by Palestinian officials.
Mr Lieberman's comments reflected a growing anxiety on the part of Israel about the repercussions of the Palestinian plan to gain the UN's recognition of statehood without first reaching a peace accord with Israel. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been intensively lobbying other countries to reject the Palestinian move, fearing it would weaken its hand in future negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
The comments by Mr Lieberman contradict a parliamentary report released last week that said intelligence officials do not expect Palestinian violence to break out should the statehood bid be approved at the UN. Nevertheless, the officials recommended that Israel call up military reserves next month to prepare for any potential clashes that could stir more violence.
On Friday the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Palestinian Authority had ordered its security forces to prevent demonstrations planned for September from escalating into violent confrontations with Israel, especially in potentially explosive sites such as checkpoints and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Israeli foreign minister also charged that the Palestinian leadership in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was stepping up its efforts to have top Israeli military commanders and government officials tried at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
He said that he would request that the inner cabinet give the green light to halt relations with the Palestinian Authority on issues such as security coordination, water resources and diplomatic dealings.
Mr Netanyahu yesterday did not comment on his foreign minister's statements and it was unclear whether they were supported by the premier. Mr Netanyahu has been increasing his lobbying in recent weeks with Israel's allies, especially in Europe, to reject the Palestinians' UN plan.
However, the Israeli premier's diplomatic efforts may be undermined as he faces his biggest domestic crisis since taking power more than two years ago, with tens of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets of the country's biggest cities to protest against the high cost of living.
On Saturday evening, more than 250,000 demonstrators poured into the streets of Tel Aviv, the country's cultural and business centre, chanting "the people demand social justice" and "the people against the government".
It was Israel's biggest-ever rally focused on social and economic issues, and it appeared to be a possible challenge to Mr Netanyahu as he may be striving to show domestic strength and unity to help his international lobbying bid against the Palestinian plan.
The protest movement has already shown signs of pressuring Mr Netanyahu's government. It swelled into country-wide demonstrations from mid-July, when it was initiated after a 25-year-old video editor complained on the social networking site Facebook that she spent half her income on rent. She then pitched a tent on an upmarket Tel Aviv avenue with a group of other young Israelis, and was followed by hundreds of other Israelis creating tent encampments in more than three dozen other cities, conducting marches, blocking roads and holding rallies in front of the prime minister's residence and office.
Mr Netanyahu, whose aides and fellow party members initially ridiculed the protests and even called the demonstrators - mostly secular and in their 20s and 30s - "sushi eaters" and "hookah smokers with guitars", yesterday appeared to change his tone.
Mr Netanyahu appointed a cabinet-level team to meet representatives of the demonstrators and discuss their demands, and his spokesman said the team's conclusions would likely be released by mid-September.
Nevertheless, Mr Netanyahu was quoted by Israeli media yesterday as cautioning that his readiness to meet the demonstrators' demands would be limited by concerns that Israel's economy may be negatively affected by Europe's economic troubles and the US's credit-rating downgrade by Standard & Poor's on Friday.