Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known for his uncompromising stand toward Palestinians, begins his first official trip abroad with a visit to Europe aimed at reassuring Europeans of Israel's commitment to the peace process.
AFP - Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman left on Sunday on his first official trip abroad, aiming to reassure the Europeans amid rising tensions over the stalled peace process.
The minister, who has triggered controversy over his virulently anti-Arab stance, will tell the Europeans to be patient while Israel's new right-leaning cabinet draws up its official policy on peacemaking, officials said.
"He will ask that the Europeans wait a bit until the government presents its new policy," foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP before Lieberman took off for Rome.
But the opposition Kadima party has accused the government of time-wasting.
Lieberman's five-day tour will take him to Paris, Prague -- which currently holds the rotating EU presidency -- and Berlin.
Immediately after taking office, Lieberman sparked criticism by saying the new cabinet was not bound by the previous government's decision at a US conference in November 2007 to revive negotiations with the Palestinians.
Tensions between Israel and the European Union have risen over the past few months, with the bloc's executive arm warning that ties would not be upgraded until the new cabinet recognised the principle of the two-state solution.
Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to publicly endorse the idea of a Palestinian state, a bedrock principle of international plans to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu, whose government was sworn in on March 31, insists that the economy in the occupied West Bank be improved before discussion on other questions.
He is due to present his government's policy in a meeting with US President Barack Obama, expected to take place on May 18 in Washington.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, who will meet Obama 10 days after Netanyahu does, said on Sunday he will tell the US president that resuming peace talks with Israel hinges on its approval of a two-state solution.
"Our conditions and demands are based on the two-state solution and Israel's halt of settlement building as well as house demolitions. These are our demands and the demands of the Americans themselves to resume the talks," Abbas said after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman.
In Italy, Lieberman will have talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
He will then meet his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday but a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy has not been decided.
"I am not saying that it's a condition, but it would be favorable if Avigdor Lieberman in the very least adheres to the decisions taken by the international community," Claude Gueant, Sarkozy's chief of staff, told French radio.
In Prague, Lieberman is due to meet his Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg, and could also hold talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, although the latter meeting was unconfirmed.
Last week, Israel warned the EU to limit its criticism of Netanyahu's cabinet or risk losing a role in the peace process, which was revived in late 2007 but has been on ice since Israel's war on Gaza in December-January.
The warning was issued in phone conversations between the deputy director of the Israeli foreign ministry's European desk, Rafi Barak, and the ambassadors of Britain, France and Germany.
"Israel asks the European Union to keep a low profile and conduct a quiet dialogue... But if these declarations continue, Europe will not be able to have involvement in the peace process and both sides will lose," Barak was quoted as telling the ambassadors.
Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party, has been described as a "racist" by critics over his anti-Arab diatribes.
Meanwhile a Pentagon official said that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was departing Sunday for talks in Egypt and Saudi Arabia focused on "regional security" and Middle East peace efforts.
Date created : 2009-05-04