Gheit: I won't shake Lieberman's hand

Egypt's FM upset by Israel Beiteinu head's speech on Annapolis; PM silent after diplomatic bombshell.

aboul gheit 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
aboul gheit 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's diplomatic bombshell Wednesday that Israel was no longer obligated by the Annapolis process, but was committed to the road map, was followed by silence on Thursday as neither Lieberman nor Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office issued directives to Israeli diplomats about how to explain the new policy abroad. Egypt, meanwhile, responded negatively to Lieberman's obvious attempt to mend his relations with Cairo, with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issuing a statement that Egypt "did not need any party to recognize its position or role, especially from those who have previously attacked it." Lieberman said during his speech at the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday that Egypt was an important country in the Arab world and a key factor in maintaining regional stability. In the past, he had harshly criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for refusing to visit Israel, and once said Israel could attack the Aswan Dam in case of a future war with Egypt. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Lieberman's comments regarding the Annapolis process were unfortunate and constituted "the first setback for the peace efforts on behalf of the new Israeli government." The statement said Egypt was interested in seeing what impact these comments would have on the EU and the US, and that the new Israeli government "obviously does not intend to pursue peace." Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said he would not shake Lieberman's hand until he retracted previous statements such as the threat to blow up the Aswan Dam and the remark that Mubarak could "go to hell" if he didn't want to visit Israel. "As long as Lieberman's positions stay the same, if we see each other by chance at a meeting, I will keep my hands in my pockets," Aboul-Gheit said in an interview taped on Thursday morning for Al-Mehwar television's 48 Hours talk show. "The Egyptian foreign minister must uphold the dignity of Egypt," Aboul-Gheit said. "Whoever insults the dignity of Egypt must face the consequences and accept responsibility for his words." He continued, "I have met with more than one Israeli foreign minister, and I have welcomed them in Egypt. But never before has any of them said anything like what [Lieberman] said against Egypt." The Prime Minister's Office remained completely silent about Lieberman's comments on Thursday, neither confirming that his words reflected the government's new policies, nor distancing itself from them. Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev, when asked about Lieberman's speech, repeated verbatim from Netanyahu's speech the day before in the Knesset that his new government was committed to peace with the Palestinians and did not want to rule over them. Without any clear directives from the top, the ministry translated the bulk of the foreign minister's speech and sent it to the country's delegations abroad, along with explanatory material on the road map and other documents to which Lieberman said Israel was committed, such as the road map's accompanying Tenet and Zinni documents. One diplomatic official said that the speech pretty much stood on its own, and there was no real need to explain it further. While the government's spokespeople were stressing Thursday in conversations with journalists that Lieberman's acceptance of the road map meant acceptance of a two-state solution, since that's where the road map leads, there was some frustration over Lieberman's and Netanyahu's refusal to voice that acceptance explicitly. "If this is what Lieberman means, that after all the conditions of the road map are met - even if it is 100 years down the line - that he would accept two states, then why not come out and say it?" one government official said. "Why not just say the words 'two states'? It would make the government's diplomatic position that much easier." The officials said that there had been few, if any, calls to the ministry from foreign embassies asking for clarifications of Lieberman's comments. That didn't mean, however, there were no reactions. Arab League chief Amr Moussa - a virulent critic of Israel since his days as Egypt's foreign minister - was quoted by Reuters as telling reporters in Cairo, "In my opinion the previous government of Israel did not honor the understandings on which the Annapolis conference and process was based... What the new foreign minister in Israel is saying is putting that in a blunt, very aggressive way." He added that "the new style of talking is just a new style. It does not initiate a new position. We know the Israeli position is negative when it comes to peace, when it comes to initiatives of peace." Opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, called on Netanyahu to distance himself completely from Lieberman's comments. Livni told Army Radio that Lieberman "showed the world that we are not a partner [for peace]." She said Israel was always complaining that there was no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, but that Lieberman's position would in fact make the international community perceive Israel as the main obstacle. Amid all the controversy, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Lieberman on Thursday to congratulate him on taking office, and the two said they would meet in the near future. Lieberman also spoke with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana after taking office, as well as with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos. Meanwhile, with the US Congress on its Easter recess, no fewer than four US congressional delegations are scheduled to arrive in Israel next week for their first meetings with Netanyahu and other key members of his government. One of those delegations - headed by Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch of the House Committee on Financial Services and chairman of the bipartisan Task Force on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing - will be going both to Syria and to the Gaza Strip. The other delegations will be headed by Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces; Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell; and Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs. The American Jewish lobby group J Street released a YouTube video Thursday, criticizing Lieberman for his views on Arabs and other minorities, and urged American Jews to make clear their opposition to his positions. The minute-and-a-half video presents some of Lieberman's "incendiary and racist" comments, in the words of the narrator. They're followed by both critiques of the new foreign minister by some American Jewish leaders and conciliatory comments by others, including Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who are described as "whitewashing what Lieberman stands for." Viewers are then urged to "stand up for our shared belief in democracy and equality." "The purpose is to make clear that the values and the proposals and the principles that he's campaigned on and stands for are out of touch with the values and principles of a large number of American Jews," J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said of the video, describing those values as ones that seek inclusion and equality for minorities after so many years of suffering as the minority in society themselves. He argued that open discussion on these and other controversial topics was in the best interests of American Jewry, while those who "tried to make acceptable positions which aren't acceptable" did a disservice to the community. Brenda Gazzar and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.