Israel's new foreign minister dismisses Annapolis

JERUSALEM Wed Apr 1, 2009 5:16pm EDT

1 of 6. Incoming Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (R) and his wife Ela attend the prime minister handover ceremony at the residence of President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem April 1, 2009. Peres told new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that the world backed the Palestinian quest for a state, a goal the incoming right-wing leader has not endorsed. Netanyahu was sworn in as Israeli prime minister on Tuesday after winning parliamentary approval for his right-leaning government.

Credit: Reuters/Menahem Kahana/Pool

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's new foreign minister angered Palestinians and raised the prospect of tension with Washington by saying on Wednesday Israel was not bound by a deal to start negotiations on establishing a Palestinian state.

On his first day at the Foreign Ministry, right-winger Avigdor Lieberman said the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis declaration of 2007 "has no validity," confirming a shift in stance under new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lieberman, a Soviet immigrant denounced as a racist by many Arabs, did stress however that Israel was obliged to follow the course charted by a U.S.-backed peace "road map" of 2003. That obliges Palestinian leaders to curb attacks on Israel before any negotiations on the final shape of a statehood deal take place.

Lieberman was effectively confirming that Netanyahu's new administration has withdrawn from its predecessors' commitment to negotiate on borders and issues like the status of Jerusalem before the two sides are satisfied road map pledges are met.

That could push negotiations on statehood deep into the future. With Gaza in the hands of Hamas Islamists, many doubt Western-backed Palestinian leaders in the West Bank can meet Israeli security conditions for such talks any time soon.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Lieberman's comments threatened regional stability and urged the United States to come out and make its opposition clear.

President Barack Obama reaffirmed only last week his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A spokesman with Obama in London said: "We are committed to working vigorously for this two-state solution."

He added: "We look forward to working with the new Israeli government and understand that we will have frank discussions."

Netanyahu's office said Obama telephoned to congratulate him on taking office and that they agreed to "cooperate closely" and to meet soon.

ANNAPOLIS

At a conference in November 2007 hosted at Annapolis in the state of Maryland by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to further "the goal of two states" in immediate negotiations with the Palestinians.

But Lieberman said only Bush's earlier road map, produced in 2003, was binding on Israel -- a distinction in accord with Netanyahu's expected emphasis on curbing violence before embarking on negotiations on statehood. In the talks begun at Annapolis, Olmert was effectively seeking to do both at once.

"There is only one document that binds us and that is not Annapolis, it has no validity," Lieberman said in a brief speech as he took over the ministry from the centrist Tzipi Livni.

He added that the road map was "the only document approved by the government and ... ratified by the (U.N.) Security Council as a binding document."

An Israeli official said: "He doesn't want to jump to final status negotiations as was laid out in Annapolis."

The centrist Olmert, who resigned last year over corruption allegations, finally stepped down on Tuesday as Netanyahu was sworn in following an election on February 10 that produced a right-wing majority in parliament. Lieberman's ultranationalist party is the biggest ally of Netanyahu's Likud in the cabinet.

A political source close to Netanyahu said his remarks reflected the position of the new leader. He has not endorsed statehood for the Palestinians, in so many words. He has said instead he thinks they should govern themselves but have limited powers of authority that would not endanger Israeli security.

Netanyahu also defends expanding existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, despite Palestinian -- and U.S. -- complaints that the road map obliges Israel to halt settlement activity.

SIGNAL

Eytan Gilboa of Israel's Bar-Ilan University said of Lieberman: "His purpose was simply to send a message that this is a new government and the policy of this government is going to be different ... It's a signal, a message. But the real meaning of it will have to be explored in subsequent months."

Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah said Washington "should take a clear position against this policy before things get worse."

Lieberman surprised some Foreign Ministry officials: "He said Annapolis goes down the drain and we're only committed to the road map. So I guess that's the new path," one said.

Officials said Israeli embassies were immediately sent a cable setting out the key quotes from Lieberman's statement. A senior Israeli diplomat said this amounted to a directive saying "Israel is not committed to the Annapolis process."

When Lieberman finished speaking, Livni, the chief negotiator in the Annapolis process, leaned over and spoke to him privately: "In spite of everything that you said, there will be a two-state solution," an official quoted her as saying.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Matt Spetalnick in London and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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