x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Envoy's visit highlights divisions

George Mitchell meets Israel's new foreign minister, whose office stated that the Palestinian peace process had 'reached a dead end'.

The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, left, and the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell talk following their first meting yesterday.
The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, left, and the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell talk following their first meting yesterday.

TEL AVIV // The first visit of George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, to Israel since the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu took power last month has spurred further signs of differences between the two allies on the creation of a Palestinian state. Following a closely watched meeting yesterday with Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's controversial far-right foreign minister, Mr Mitchell told journalists: "I reiterated to the foreign minister that US policy favours, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution which will have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel."

Mr Lieberman, the second-most powerful official in a hardline government that has refused to commit to Palestinian statehood, responded, according to a statement distributed by his office, that the peace process "has reached a dead end". He added: "The Israeli government will have to formulate new ideas and a new approach." In what is likely no coincidence, Mr Lieberman made no mention of the two-state solution in the statement. Along with Mr Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, Mr Lieberman has indicated he favours postponing talks on Palestinian statehood indefinitely.

The differences on Palestinian statehood with its most important ally are emerging as Israel also faces growing tensions with Egypt, one of only two Arab states - the other is Jordan - to be officially at peace with Israel. In statements that were blasted in the front-page headlines of Israel's major newspapers yesterday, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, said Egypt will not deal with Mr Lieberman, nor will he be welcome in Cairo.

The comments follow the controversy stirred by Mr Lieberman's past comments on Egypt, including saying the Egyptian president should "go to hell" if he did not want to visit Israel and suggesting Israel bomb Egypt's Aswan Dam in the event of war between the two countries. Mr Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying on Wednesday during an interview with the Russia Today television channel: "A person has to think about the consequences of the signals he sends from his brain to his tongue during speech. I can't imagine that [Mr Lieberman's] foot will step on Egyptian soil as long as his positions remain unchanged."

In early April, Mr Aboul Gheit said he would not shake Mr Lieberman's hand if he encountered him at a meeting. Such statements compound the growing international scepticism towards Israel's new hardline governing coalition. The government includes many politicians who oppose the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state and back the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, territory that the Palestinians want as part of their future state.

Mr Mitchell's visit in Israel yesterday highlighted the widening divide on the issue between Jerusalem and Washington. Barack Obama made clear during his first international tour as US president this month that he would "actively pursue" the two-state solution. He also expressed support for the US-backed talks between Israelis and Palestinians that were kick-started at the Annapolis summit in Nov 2007.

Mr Lieberman, however, has rejected the Annapolis negotiations, which aimed at tackling final-status issues on Palestinian statehood such as borders, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Instead, he has said he prefers for Israelis and Palestinians to first meet their commitments under an earlier US-supported agreement from 2003 called the "Road Map" before entering final negotiations.

Palestinians have condemned Mr Lieberman's statements, alarmed that the new policy would delay final-status talks far into the future. Mr Lieberman's comments are also drawing criticism at home. Yesterday, Tzipi Livni, the head of the centrist Kadima party and leader of the parliamentary opposition, said before meeting with Mr Mitchell that "stagnation" in peace talks does not serve Israel's interests. Ms Livni, who served as foreign minister in the former Israeli government and headed the Israeli negotiating team in the Annapolis talks, added: "The existence of Israel as the national home for the Jewish people calls for decisions. Israel needs to advance a diplomatic process to set its borders and finish the conflict."

In addition to the issue of Palestinian statehood, Mr Mitchell's discussions yesterday with Israeli officials centred on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Israel views as a threat to its existence. While Washington prefers negotiations as a way to curb Iran's uranium enrichment, Israel has prompted international concern by indicating it may attack Iran's nuclear sites. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, warned this week that such a strike would carry dangerous consequences. vbekker@thenational.ae