Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did damage control Monday evening, a day after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Palestinian Authority government "illegitimate," saying in a rare television interview that if the conditions were right he would pursue a historic peace agreement regardless of coalition considerations.
Netanyahu said that if the Palestinians would recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and give up on the right of return, and if security arrangement would be agreed upon to his satisfaction, "no coalition consideration will stop me." Coalition considerations, he said, would neither hinder the conducting of negotiations or the possibility of reaching an agreement if the Palestinians would prove they are partners. "But up until now they are just trying to run away from negotiations," he said. "If they enter [talks], and accept those two basic conditions to reaching an agreement, I will not hesitate." Since taking office nearly two years ago, Netanyahu has given only a handful of interviews to the Israeli media. But following Lieberman's speech on Sunday, where the Foreign Minister also went on the offensive against Turkey and said that the country's' prime minister and foreign minster were lying, Netanyahu apparently felt the need to show he was in charge and publicly distance himself from these remarks.
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Regarding Turkey, Netanyahu – asked about Lieberman's comments – said that he learned years ago it was always better to deal with the issues, rather than engage in personal attacks Netanyahu said that while Turkey wanted an apology for the Mavi Marmara attack, "we – of course – don't want to apologize." He said that Israel was willing to express regret for the loss of live, as it already had done. But, he said, Israel wanted to protect its soldiers and officers who have been accused of war crimes and could be arrested around the world. For that reason, he said, Israel sought Turkish recognition that Israel did not act out of malice, and that the soldiers acted out of self defense.
Netanyahu said there was a wide gap between those two positions, and that the bridging formula had not yet been found, though "we are continuing to try." Regarding the Palestinians, Netanyahu did not rule out a long term interim agreement, as Lieberman had suggested, but he said this would be the result of negotiations that hit a dead end, rather than the starting point for the whole process.
"If we get into the discussions, it could be that we will hit a wall – on [the issue] of Jerusalem, on refugees. It is possible then that as a result there will be an interim agreement. I don't rule out that possibility," he said.
Netanyahu added, however, that stating that an interim agreement was the final goal would make it difficult to bring the Palestinians to the table. "This can be the result of a diplomatic process, but not its first aim," he said.
Netanyahu said that Lieberman was not "humiliating" him by making statements that run contrary to his own positions.
"He is expressing his opinion," Netanyahu said. "In Israel's system of government ministers always express their opinions. In this case, Lieberman, [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, [Interior Minister Elli] Yishai, [Science and Technology Minister Daniel] Herschkowitz – they have different opinions. The opinion that counts is the one decided upon by the government, or the one expressed by the prime minister. That is the way it has always been in previous governments, and that is the way it is now." Netanyahu said the security situation in the country is "incomparably" better than it was two and three years ago, "because our enemies know not to mess with me. They are, at least, more cautious. And if they shoot something, they will get it back on the spot. That is a policy I set, and we implement it." Regarding the recent escalation of tensions in the south, Netanyahu said that it would be a "fatal mistake" for Hamas to act aggressively. He did not elaborate.
During the interview Netanyahu again reiterated that any agreement with the Palestinians would necessitate an Israeli presence on the Jordan River, and that he was opposed to a division of Jerusalem agreed upon by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whereby the Arab neighborhoods would be turned over to a Palestinian state.
Lieberman, meanwhile, is expected to present an alternative plan for diplomatic process in the near future, what he referred to Sunday as "Plan B." Foreign Ministry sources said he has worked on the plan , expected to be details of a long term interim agreement with an emphasis on economic and security dimensions, with senior officials in the ministry.