Israel yet to form stance on peace talks

Deputy FM Ayalon: Diplomatic plans should be in place when Netanyahu travels to US next month.

Danny Ayalon 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Danny Ayalon 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli officials cautioned on Sunday against rushing to conclusions about the government's plans for negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria. Despite media reports of disagreement between Israeli and American officials over the new government's attitude regarding preconditions for renewed peace negotiations, Jerusalem has yet to formulate specific positions on these issues, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post. "We are looking into every aspect of the negotiations. Everything will be reviewed," Ayalon said. He told Army Radio that the government needed at least four more weeks to formulate its diplomatic policy, but that it should be ready by the time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travels to Washington in late May for a meeting with President Barack Obama. According to former ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval, who is close to Netanyahu and advised him on foreign policy during the recent election campaign, "For the first time in years, the government is working in a serious, structured way on peace issues. This can't be done in headlines and slogans, but in a careful process." The wait-and-see tone from officials and advisers seemed to counter press speculation about American-Israeli disagreements. Officials in Jerusalem said after talks with Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell last week that he had accepted Israel's request for a month or so to work on its new policy. Netanyahu told Mitchell that the Palestinians must recognize Israel's Jewish status "before talking about two states for two peoples." That statement, coupled with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's rejection of the Annapolis agreements as binding on Israel - though he said the government would be bound to the Quartet road map - have reportedly led to concern in the Obama administration that Israel does not share the American commitment to establishing a Palestinian state. Lieberman is to meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman during the latter's visit to Israel this week, despite Cairo's criticism of the Israel Beiteinu chairman, Lieberman's deputy told Army Radio on Sunday. "Gen. Suleiman will meet minister Lieberman during his visit in the coming days," Ayalon told Army Radio. Last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview Wednesday with Russia Today TV that Egypt would not deal with Lieberman, nor would he be welcome in Cairo unless his positions changed. He said that they were dealing "with the government of Israel and not Lieberman." Lieberman has angered Cairo by criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for never visiting Israel, except for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995, saying he could "go to hell" if he did not want to come. He also once said Israel could attack the Aswan Dam in the event of a war with Egypt. Earlier this month, Gheit said he would not shake Lieberman's hand until he retracted such statements. During his speech when he took office last month, Lieberman attempted to relieve tensions with Egypt, calling it an important country in the Arab world and a key factor in maintaining regional stability. The US government has reportedly rejected the Netanyahu requirement, and Mitchell's staff is said to view the Arab peace plan as a basis for negotiations, something Israel has rejected in the past. In the words of a close adviser to Netanyahu, "we're not supposed to have preconditions, but we're presented with an Arab peace plan that is entirely based on preconditions. It's a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Besides, how can you even begin to negotiate without setting your preconditions?" Despite these reports of tensions, however, those close to Netanyahu believe the Americans, too, are still developing their negotiations policy. According to Shoval, "the Americans are still examining the architecture of their own foreign policy, including toward the Middle East. I know for a fact that they are considering ways in which different Arab states can contribute to the peace process." Some in government, however, seem to believe the disagreement is real and that Israel must act to prevent it from becoming detrimental to the country's interests. In the wake of reports about the Obama administration's positive attitude toward the Arab plan, Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested on Sunday that Israel offer its own regional plan that would deal with the Palestinian, Syrian and Arab-world tracks. Barak insisted any disagreements with Washington were avoidable. "US-Israel ties are deep and close," he said. "We can and need to reach an understanding on all issues on the agenda." He added that the final result of negotiations had to be a comprehensive regional agreement that included a two-state solution and a solution to the refugee problem, which he said lay within a Palestinian state. The inclusion of Labor, which supports a two-state solution outright, in the coalition is seen by many as a sign of Netanyahu's pragmatism and willingness to include Palestinian statehood on the negotiating agenda despite the opposition of hawks in his coalition. Barak spoke at a Sunday morning meeting in the Prime Minister's Office that formally launched the policy review process mentioned by the Israeli officials. The Sunday meeting was attended by Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, National Security Council chairman Uzi Arad and Defense Ministry Diplomatic-Security Bureau chief Amos Gilad, among others. It also dealt with security issues, including smuggling activities in Gaza. Brenda Gazzar and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.