Secretary General Ban Ki-moon repeated his call for Israel to ease its blockade against Gaza, during a meeting he held at United Nations headquarters on June 19 with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Settlements, the UN’s support for a two-state solution, and Iran were among the other topics discussed.
In a brief press conference which I attended after the Ban-Lieberman meeting, the Foreign Minister remarked on the “better relations between Israel and the UN.” He said, “we don’t have any precondition” to peace negotiations but that, like the Palestinians, the Israelis have a right to put forth their position and “try to convince the other side.”
Mr. Lieberman promised that we “will continue our cooperation with the UN,” although he made no mention of any intent on the part of Israel to ease the Gaza blockade any time soon as Ban Ki-moon had urged.
Without having to say so, Mr. Lieberman is well aware that easing the blockade without iron-clad measures to stop arms smuggling and all rocket attacks for good would be suicidal.
The Foreign Minister also made no mention of the UN Secretary General’s continuing demand that Israel pay the UN approximately $11 million for compensation of damage inflicted on UN quarters during Israel’s military action in Gaza earlier this year. The Secretary General had told reporters a week earlier that he had referred the compensation issue to the UN’s lawyers. Reading between the lines, he may be thinking about possibly taking legal action against the Israeli government to collect the money if Israel does not voluntarily make amends.
One issue that Mr. Lieberman did focus on during his press conference was settlements. He held fast to Israel’s opposition to a complete freeze, which came up during his discussion with Ban Ki-moon as well as with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington a day earlier.
He told reporters that the issue of settlement construction is “not an obstacle to achieve peace,” and characterized the issue as “an excuse for those who want to avoid peace talks.” He correctly pointed out that before Israel “established even one settlement” – from 1948 to 1967 – there was still “bloodshed” and “terror.” During that time Gaza was under Egyptian control, and the West Bank was under Jordanian control. And Mr. Lieberman also correctly pointed out that during Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, “Israel evacuated twenty-four settlements; we transported ten-thousand Jews and we got in return Hamas in power in Gaza and Qassam missiles”.
Mr. Lieberman sought to put the settlements issue in proper perspective by observing that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represented the “biggest threat not only for Israel but the entire world”.
The Foreign Minister acknowledged that the settlements issue was causing some tension with the Obama administration. However, he expressed confidence that the two allies will find ways to “bridge over” their differences and “achieve understandings".
The settlements issue is part of a much larger discussion that must take place with the Palestinians in order for there to be a meaningful basis for peace, which is to flesh out the specifics of the so-called two-state solution. Everyone mouths the phrase two-state solution as if it were an elixir. But what exactly does it mean?
When Mr. Lieberman was interviewed by the Jerusalem Post shortly after assuming his current position, he said that the phrases "land for peace" and "two-state solution" were both overly simplistic and ignored the root causes of the ongoing conflict.
Israel was created as a Jewish homeland. It could not accept a two-state solution that forced it to give up its unique Jewish character, as the Palestinian Authority and Arab nations demand. "You know, we don't want to torpedo the process," Mr. Lieberman remarked to the Jerusalem Post. "But somebody who really wants a solution, somebody who really desires a real peace and a real agreement, must realize that this would be impossible to achieve without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state".
The Palestinian negotiators demand the ‘right of return’ of all Palestinian refugees to live within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. This demand is also an essential part of the Saudi peace plan which President Obama has praised. The ‘right-of-return’ is a non-starter if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. “I'm not ready to even discuss the ‘right of return' of even one refugee," Mr. Lieberman told the Jerusalem Post.
Israel’s Foreign Minister is perceived as an extremist by some in the media. And I’m not just referring to Arab publications such as Al Jazeera. The New York Times, for example, has joined this chorus of critics.
I did not see the extremist caricature that these critics put forth. In both his demeanor and in the content of his remarks at his UN press briefing, Mr. Lieberman struck a moderate tone. He spoke out forcefully to be sure, but extended an invitation to the Palestinians to engage in peace talks without preconditions.
Instead of bullying Israel on a subsidiary issue like settlements, as Hillary Clinton did when meeting with Mr. Lieberman, the Obama administration should help formulate a definition of the two-state solution which honors and secures the basis on which Israel was created in the first place.