Israel's new defence minister says supports Palestinian state

Hawkish Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman insisted that he supported a Palestinian state as he began his new job as defence minister on Tuesday.

Lieberman was sworn in on Monday night in Jerusalem and welcomed on Tuesday by an honorary guard at defence headquarters in Tel Aviv. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the parliament vote in favour of Lieberman's appointment: "I take this opportunity to make clear that I remain committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbours."

When Netanyahu said he remained committed to the two-state solution, Lieberman replied: "I listened to everything you said and I absolutely agree with every word, including two states for two peoples."

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, dismissed the Israeli statements as a "public relations" stunt.

Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general, said: "We are used to Netanyahu and his government's inconsistencies and contradictions between words and actions," reiterating the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze as a condition for a return to direct bilateral negotiations.

Abbas told mayors from northern Israel at a meeting in Ramallah that "we do not judge people according to partisan or ethnic affiliation, but by their position on the peace process."

Lieberman recently said that if he were defence minister he would give the leader of Hamas in Gaza 24 hours to hand over the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, or else he could "pick out his grave." 

In 2001, he warned that Israel could bomb the Aswan dam over the Nile if provoked by Egypt. And in a 2008 statement, he said that if then Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak continued to refuse to visit Israel despite the cold peace between the two countries, he could "go to hell."

He struck a more conciliatory note on Monday night.

"I want to remind people that ... I spoke more than once about recognizing that same solution of two states for two peoples," Lieberman said, noting that had been the policy of his Israel Beiteinu party "for many years."

Both Netanyahu and Lieberman spoke about the importance of the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which promised normalization of ties between Israel and Arab states in the region, as soon as Israel signed a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

They praised Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi for a May 17 call to revive peace talks.

But they both ignored a French attempt to hold multilateral talks in Paris on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The last Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations collapsed two years ago.

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov welcomed Netanyahu's and Lieberman's comments, but said they "must be followed up with concrete and timely action."

"This can help advance negotiations on achieving a two-state solution," he said, urging that the opportunity put forward by al-Sissi "should not be missed."

Last update: Tue, 31/05/2016 - 21:51

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