Barak plays down Netanyahu's speech

Defense minister: Address will be cautious, vague; Lieberman hopes for "well-balanced" speech.

ehud barak 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
ehud barak 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak sought to downplay expectations about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's long-awaited foreign policy speech set to be delivered Sunday evening at Bar-Ilan University. Speaking on Sunday morning at a Labor faction meeting, Barak said "the speech will be cautious and extremely vague," adding that "expectations should be lowered." Also Sunday, before leaving on a 10-day trip to Europe, the US and Canada, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed hope that Netanyahu's long-awaited speech will be well-balanced and "will define the central interests that dictate Israel's foreign policy." According to Israel Radio, Liebermen would not say whether Netanyahu consulted with him before writing the address, but added that he was very much looking forward to hearing the speech. Possibly in order to avoid revealing any details on the content of his speech later in the day, Netanyahu refrained from giving his routine statement to the press at the start of the cabinet meeting. Before entering the Sunday's meeting, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he expected Netanyahu's address to be very general and to reflect Israel's security needs. According to Israel Radio, Yishai stressed that Israel genuinely wanted peace, but since the Palestinians did not, security should be the highest priority. Yishai went on to say he was sure Netanyahu would manage to stand up for Israeli interests without leading the country into a standoff with the US. "I am confident the prime minister's speech will not forfeit Israel's interests and will not lead to a conflict with the Obama administration," the Shas chairman told reporters. Kadima MK Majallie Whbee said that "Netanyahu must choose today between Barack Obama and [Likud MK] Tzipi Hotovely, and between the involvement of the US and the Western word in peace efforts and surrendering to blackmail by the Likud extremists in the coalition. "Giving in to the extremism will likely have a boomerang effect; instead of avoiding compromises, [it will lead] Israel against its will to divisive and dangerous concessions," he added. Meanwhile, Kadima MK Ze'ev Boim slammed the "build-up" to Netanyahu's address and called on the prime minister to focus on actions rather than words. "For a week now, the country is in a state of panic over what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is going to say. They have been creating a build-up about the speech and gathering together advisers and analysts and for what? It's all words," Boim said in a statement to the press. Boim went on to say that "it is not words that are important, but deeds. Policy is tested by actions and not by verbal acrobatics." Earlier Sunday, the National Union released a statement calling on the prime minister to remember that he was elected by Israeli citizens and was not appointed by US President Barack Obama. "We call on the prime minister not to repeat the mistakes of [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon, and not to detach himself from the voters," it said. Likud Party hawks were working around the clock in the hopes of pressuring Netanyahu to make the speech more palatable to their tastes. The pressure came as a Kassam rocket from Gaza hit the Negev on Saturday, bolstering hawkish opposition to any relinquishing of Israeli security authority in the West Bank. A key group of party donors, both from Israel and from overseas, were expected to pressure Netanyahu in the hours before the speech, urging him to avoid using the term "the Palestinian people" or the phrase "two states for two peoples." Similarly, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Begin were expected to speak with Netanyahu in the hours before the speech to convince him to adhere to the right-wing platform upon which he was elected. MK Danny Danon, a freshman legislator who has become a rallying figure for settlement heads active in the Likud Party, said he "believes that the request made by party members will ultimately succeed." On Friday, Netanyahu met with Shas MKs and ministers to discuss the speech and Yishai issued a statement saying Netanyahu was advised to avoid saying things which would directly confront the United States, and should rather stress Israel would continue building in large settlement blocs while demanding Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and cease incitement to violence. Netanyahu also met with members of Habayit Hayehudi, after which MK Zevulun Orlev told Israel Radio he was "much relieved" to hear from Netanyahu about his planned speech. But after Netanyahu met over the weekend with representatives of other coalition factions, the last remaining hard nut to crack in his coalition regarding the content of the speech seemed to be the one nestled within his own party. In addition to the three high-ranking representatives, one party source said that even more moderate-leaning ministers in the party, who on principle would acquiesce to a two-state plan, have expressed hope that Netanyahu would refrain from overtly mentioning a Palestinian state. According to Likud sources, Netanyahu would not have political trouble if he indirectly endorsed a two-state solution by calling for implementation of the road map peace plan, which calls for a two-state resolution to the conflict. But he is far more encumbered by his party's political leanings when it comes to settlements. Party activists distinguish between different types of settlements, including outposts, established towns and major settlement blocs, most of which are alongside the Green Line that divides land under Israeli sovereignty from the West Bank. "If Bibi takes down outposts, but allows construction in the settlement blocs, I think the heads of the settlements will go willingly, and the party won't give him trouble. If he tries to take down towns, he'll have a major political problem," said one senior Likud source. Similarly, Netanyahu is likely to use the speech to respond to the US administration's demand for an end to settlement growth, including a freeze on "natural growth." Netanyahu has already rejected the freeze on "natural growth," which his advisers say amounts to a freeze on childbirth in the settlements, something a democratic state is not equipped to do regardless of political expediency. But, say Likud sources, he may agree to a freeze on the few remaining major construction or development projects to ease Israel's tensions with the Obama administration at a time when Israel feels it needs American backing in light of the growing threat of a nuclear Iran. "At the end of the day, we have to preserve our relations with the US, but without surrendering our principles. I believe Bibi will succeed in doing this," said coalition chairman MK Ze'ev Elkin. The Likud's concerns over a rush to Palestinian statehood are rational, Elkin added. "A Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria in the near future is absolutely the wrong thing to do. After Gaza, who knows how [a state in the West Bank] will end? We weren't elected to continue Olmert's policies," he said. Elkin cautioned against acquiescing to every American demand, citing Hamas's electoral victory in Gaza as "an example of why we should not always take the Americans' advice on policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians" - since it was the US administration that pressured Israel to allow Hamas to run in the 2006 Palestinian elections. At the end of Shabbat, Netanyahu made another pre-speech visit, this time to the residence of President Shimon Peres, where the two former election rivals discussed the content of the prime minister's upcoming speech. Herb Keinon contributed to this report