Liberman: Israel not ‘occupying’ West Bank, peace talks won’t work

Speaking at Saban Forum in Washington, foreign minister says dialogue, coexistence with Palestinians critical; calls Iran a bigger threat to Gulf states than to Israel

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman talks with journalist David Ignatius at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 6, 2013. (photo credit: @Arturo_Sarukhan, Twitter)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman talks with journalist David Ignatius at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 6, 2013. (photo credit: @Arturo_Sarukhan, Twitter)

There’s zero trust between Israel and the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Friday night, voicing scant hope for a peace agreement by the end of the nine month period allotted for the American-brokered peace talks.

Speaking in Washington at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Forum on “US-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East,” Liberman said negotiations with the Palestinians must start “not from security and not from refugees, but from some simple thing I call trust, confidence, credibility.”

“Without trust and credibility — mission impossible,” he said. The foreign minister said past treaties were made between Israeli and Palestinian rulers, not the respective peoples. 

“I think we must reach a real comprehensive solution with the Palestinians and not with the rulers,” he said.

While he expressed gratitude for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring the two sides together, “to keep this process alive,” and reach a negotiated resolution to the decades-long conflict, Liberman expressed doubt that there’d be an agreement in the coming year.

“To speak frankly,” said Liberman, “I don’t believe it is possible in the next year to achieve [a] comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it’s crucial to keep our dialogue, because we live in the same region, we’re neighbors. It’s important at least to think about coexistence.”

Liberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, said he continued to support a two-state solution, and reiterated his backing for a land and population swap with the Palestinians — a plan which would involve the forced transfer of some Israeli Arabs to Palestinian Authority control.

“We’re ready to share this small land,” he said, saying he was even willing to leave his home at the West Bank settlement of Nokdim should there be hope of a guaranteed negotiated resolution to the conflict. He rejected outright the term “occupation” in the context of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, however, and said the conflict with the Palestinians was not a matter of territory. “To speak of occupation is not to understand the history of this region and the facts.”

He said the Israeli government must break out of its deadlock with the Palestinians, take a step back and reevaluate its policies.

“All of our direction on the Palestinian issue is the wrong direction; we must take some time out for a policy review,” he said.

Should peace talks break down, Liberman said he opposed unilateral Israeli action to withdraw from the West Bank, as Israel did from the Gaza Strip in 2005. 

“I don’t believe in unilateral steps,” he said twice in his talk with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, noting the thousands of rockets fired at Israel in the eight years since it left the Palestinian territory, which was taken over by Hamas in 2007.

Turning to the Iranian issue, Liberman reiterated his opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public airing of dirty laundry with the United States over the interim deal reached with Iran in Geneva last month. “It’s unnecessary to discuss public disagreements publicly,” he said. “I think to cool down the atmosphere is also very crucial today.”

While he acknowledged that Israel sought to diversify its allegiances in the international arena, he said there was no replacement for its close alliance with Washington.

“We don’t have any alternative to the United States,” Liberman said, but added that “we can’t disregard Russia” from the Middle East equation. 

Concerning rumors of a secret Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran, Liberman didn’t confirm or deny suspicions, but said Israel was open to dialogue with all countries, and said that Saudi Arabia was “not so worried about Israel.”

“The biggest threat for them is not Zionism, not Jews, not Israel, but the radical movements in the Arab world like Sunni radical movements like al-Qaeda and of course the Iranian ambitions,” he said. Ignatius commented that he “almost heard an endorsement of an Israeli-Saudi understanding about security.”

Liberman also warned against a developing Middle Eastern nuclear arms race involving the Saudis, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. He said Iran’s government, headed by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, didn’t hold the real power, but the supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard did.

He said Iran posed a greater threat to the Gulf countries than it did to Israel. “The biggest threat from Iranians is not even to Israel, it is first of all to the [Saudi] allies, to the Gulf countries,” he said.

Liberman compared the nuclear deal reached by the US and world powers with Iran and the chemical weapons agreement reached by the US and Russia with Syria. In the Syrian case, the deal was to destroy the chemical weapons and the means of producing them, he said, but in the Iranian case “the centrifuges that were spinning before the agreement continue to spin today” and Iran keeps all enriched uranium.

“It’s really a crucial and big difference between the two deals,” he said, noting that Iran’s end of the bargain was “unacceptable to me and the Israelis” and that Israel “know[s] what the Iranian intentions” are and sees their involvement in terrorist activity in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are both set to speak this weekend at the high-level Saban conference, which is focused on Israel’s relationship with the United States.

Numerous other Israeli politicians are participating in the event — including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. The prime minister will speak via webcast from Israel.

The prime minister will be interviewed by PBS News host Charlie Rose on Sunday. Obama will speak with Haim Saban, an Israeli-American mogul who funds the forum, on Saturday afternoon US-time and Kerry will deliver the keynote address later in the day.

The annual forum, now in its 10th year, is organized by The Saban Center for Middle East Policy and aims to foster dialogue between American and Israeli political figures on the most pressing issues in the Middle East.

In a press release, Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center, highlighted the forum’s increased pertinence this year in light of peace and security issues currently facing Jerusalem and Washington.

This year’s forum comes as ties between the US and Israel have become increasingly strained following the interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month between Iran and six world powers including the US, which Netanyahu staunchly and outspokenly opposed.

US officials responded that they were “very frustrated” by the backlash.

In addition, Kerry slammed Israel’s West Bank policies in early November, much to the displeasure of the Israeli leadership.

Kerry, in Israel on Thursday and Friday, appeared to take a more conciliatory stance toward Israel, stressing that Washington’s main concern in talks with Iran remains Israel’s security.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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