Vita Bekker
The National
May 4, 2009 - 12:00am

vigdor Lieberman embarks today on his first official European tour since becoming Israel’s new foreign minister as his hardline government bids to mitigate escalating tensions with the European Union, prompted by its resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The top diplomat, who has drawn fire for controversial statements against Israel’s Arab minority and his opposition to making territorial concessions in exchange for peace, will meet his counterparts in Italy, France, the Czech Republic and Germany this week.

His visit takes place amid a particularly tense time in relations between Israel and the EU over its approach to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Last week, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations, warned that an upgrade in bilateral ties between the EU and Israel would hinge on Israel’s endorsement of Palestinian statehood. She was quoted as saying: “We expect indeed a clear commitment from the new government to pursue the negotiations with the Palestinians.”

She added that the EU expects “a stop of all activities undermining our objective of a two-state solution”, including the continuing expansion of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Such threats jeopardise Israel’s negotiations to elevate its relations with the EU, an upgrade that would include trade perks, more high-level consultations between Israeli and European officials on such issues as terrorism, energy and the environment, and the inclusion of Israel in education, science and technology programmes.

The Palestinians have repeatedly pushed for the EU to freeze the upgrade as a way to press Israel to take more steps towards a two-state solution. The planned boost in ties was put on hold after Israel launched its 22-day onslaught in the Gaza Strip in December, attacks that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

However, the EU appears to be divided on whether its relations with Israel should be tied to progress on peace.

Mirek Topolanek, the outgoing Czech prime minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily newspaper, last week: “The peace process should not be linked to the relations between the EU and Israel.” Commenting on Ms Ferrero-Waldner’s comments, Mr Topolanek, whom the newspaper dubbed as one of Israel’s “closest allies in Europe”, added: “I consider the statement … to be really hasty and I would not really attribute to it more weight than just a statement by a commissioner.”

Yesterday, Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign minister, criticised Ms Ferrero-Waldner’s statements as “totally uncalled for”. He added: “Those were very strong comments and were particularly strident because they were in complete contradiction with official EU presidency statements.”

Mr Palmor said the bloc will wait to make a decision on ties with Israel until a summit to be attended by Mr Lieberman and his EU counterparts in June.

Mr Lieberman’s visit is viewed as part of his government’s intensifying campaign to gain more legitimacy in Europe. Israeli media have reported that Rafi Barak, deputy director of the foreign ministry’s European desk, has conducted telephone conversations in recent days with ambassadors from countries including the UK, France and Germany. Mr Barak is believed to have issued warnings that the EU risks losing its role as a broker in peace talks should it not tame its criticism of Mr Netanyahu’s administration.

Mr Netanyahu is expected to unveil details of his new government’s foreign policy before his first official meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington on May 18.

Although the prime minister has been careful not to rule out a two-state solution since being sworn into office on March 31, he has spoken in favour of continuing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians view as a core part of their future state. He has also shown more readiness to conduct talks with the Palestinians on economic co-operation rather than on so-called final status issues such as borders, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Mr Lieberman himself has drawn criticism by rejecting renewed negotiations, which were kick-started at the US-backed Annapolis summit in Nov 2007 and which focused on the final status issues. Mr Obama has since expressed support for renewing those talks.

Mr Lieberman is launching his European tour just as Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, is starting a visit in the US this week that is aimed at allaying concerns by the Obama administration about the Israeli government’s opposition to a Palestinian state.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017