Israeli Foreign Minister: I'm Not Being Sidelined

Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister said
Monday that he voluntarily removed himself from crucial talks with
the United States because he lives in a West Bank settlement,
denying speculation that he's being sidelined by an image-conscious
government troubled by growing friction with the Obama
administration.

The talks are meant to bridge the gap between Washington, which
demands a total West Bank settlement freeze, and Israel, which
wants some construction to continue.

Avigdor Lieberman told reporters he stepped aside because his
status as a settler could be perceived as a "clear conflict of
interest." Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the dovish Labor Party
has been dispatched to the talks instead.

"I wouldn't want to be accused afterward of purposely derailing
important political negotiations" and jeopardizing relations with
the United States, Lieberman said.

"I am involved in the peace process but I think in this
specific case at this stage it is much much better that Barak take
responsibility for these talks," he told reporters.

Barak was meeting in London on Monday with U.S. Mideast envoy
George Mitchell. He and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
say construction must go on to accommodate growing settler families
in the West Bank - land the Palestinians seek as part of a future
state. Nearly 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east
Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and
claimed by the Palestinians.

The European Commission, in an unusually blunt statement, said
before the meeting that Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank
stifles the Palestinian economy, increasing Palestinian dependence
on foreign aid and ultimately forcing European taxpayers to bear
much of the cost.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the EU ambassador to Israel
was called in for explanations, a form of protest. The Israeli
statement said the meeting between Barak and Mitchell would take
place Tuesday.

Lieberman took office three months ago on a decidedly
undiplomatic agenda, criticizing Mideast peace efforts and calling
for a national loyalty oath that drew charges of anti-Arab racism.

His stances have drawn heavy international criticism. French
President Nicolas Sarkozy last month advised Netanyahu to "get rid
of that man," according to Israeli officials. Netanyahu,
addressing a group of European Union ambassadors last week,
expressed "full confidence" in his country's chief diplomat.

But in recent weeks, Lieberman appears to have been pushed aside
on foreign policy matters and his ambitious legislative agenda has
fizzled.

Even though Israel's foreign policy traditionally is set by its
prime minister, "it is interesting to note just how invisible now
Lieberman is in the current main tracks of Israeli diplomacy,"
said Jonathan Spyer, an expert on international affairs at the
Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv.

Given the pressure on Israel to ease its hawkish stance, "it
suits the government's purposes to have him play a very low
profile," Spyer said.

Lieberman hasn't been completely hidden. He has visited several
European capitals and on Monday met in Jerusalem with Germany's
foreign minister. A natibe of Soviet Modlova and a Russian-speaker,
Lieberman has become Israel's point man on Russia.

He also has been to Washington, where the climate turned frosty
when he bluntly said Israel would keep building in the West Bank.

In pressing Israel's case for settlement expansion, Netanyahu
has turned to Barak, the most moderate face of a government
dominated by hardliners. Barak's Labor Party has been a longtime
advocate of Palestinian statehood, a position only recently
endorsed by Netanyahu.

"Lieberman, to put it mildly, could not be part of that,"
Spyer said.

Lieberman also has been frozen out of Israel's dealings with
Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries with peace treaties with
Israel. Instead, President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate,
has been representing Israel's interests with the Arabs. Both Egypt
and Jordan have given the cold shoulder to Lieberman, who declared
last year that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to
hell" for not visiting Israel.

On the parliamentary front, too, Lieberman suffered a setback
when lawmakers scotched his Yisrael Beiteinu Party's proposal to
require citizens to sign a loyalty oath.

Allegations of bribe-taking and money-laundering continue to dog
him as well. Police who have been working on the case for more than
a decade have questioned him several times since he became foreign
minister.


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