Lieberman: Mubarak can visit or go to hell

PM, Peres scramble to contain damage from crude comments against Egyptian president.

netanyahu likud 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
netanyahu likud 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted swiftly Wednesday to try and contain any diplomatic damage from Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman's unflattering remarks about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, phoning Mubarak to say Lieberman's words did not reflect Israeli policy. Speaking at a Knesset memorial session Wednesday marking the seventh anniversary of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassination, Lieberman said, "[Ze'evi] would never agree to the self-effacing attitude of Israel vis-à-vis Egypt. Time after time, our leaders go to meet Mubarak in Egypt, but he has never agreed to come here for an official visit as president. Every self-respecting leader would have made those meetings conditional on reciprocity. If he wants to talk to us, he should come here; if he doesn't want to come here, he can go to hell." Olmert, according to his office, called Mubarak immediately afterward and apologized for the "crude" comments. The prime minister told Mubarak that it would have been better had comments like those not been made, and that once they were uttered it was clear they were "unnecessary and harmful." According to Olmert's office, the prime minister said Israel viewed Mubarak as a "strategic partner and a close friend," and that Israel attributed great importance to the relations with Egypt and to strengthening the ties between the two countries. Peres also phoned Mubarak and issued a statement expressing "sorrow" at Lieberman's statement. "The State of Israel has deep respect for President Mubarak and his country for their important and leading role in furthering peace in the region," Peres said, adding that one "lone call" would not harm relations that were wide, varied and full of content. The quick and unequivocal response by Peres and Olmert indicated concern in Jerusalem that Lieberman's remarks could complicate relations with Egypt if they were not sharply and quickly denounced,. Nevertheless, Mubarak's refusal to make a state visit to Israel has periodically been a point of contention between the two countries. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, for instance, entered office in 2001 saying he would not make pilgrimages to Cairo as his predecessors had, at least until the Egyptians released alleged Israeli spy Azzam Azzam. Indeed, Sharon did not meet Mubarak in Egypt until after Azzam's release in December 2005. Mubarak is expected to host a meeting of the Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - on November 9 in Sharm e-Sheikh, a meeting that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to attend. There is also a likelihood that Livni and Palestinian Authority negotiator Ahmed Qurei will brief the Quartet representatives on the status of the Israeli-PA negotiations, charting out what has and has not yet been agreed upon. In preparation for that meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to arrive in Jerusalem on November 6, just two days after the US elections, in an indication that the US does not intend to put the diplomatic process in deep freeze until after the Israeli elections or a new US Administration is sworn in. Another indication that the US wants to try and keep some diplomatic momentum going is an invitation US President George W. Bush issued to Olmert Wednesday for another meeting in the US. Olmert's office said the two men spoke by phone Wednesday and that the visit would take place "shortly."