Israel's Lieberman under fire over call to oust Palestinian chief

Lieberman's claims that Mahmoud Abbas leads a 'despotic government', has a 'weak' standing among Palestinians and is intent on destroying chances to renew the peace process have been rejected.

Views held by Israel’s controversial far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman have been rejected by the Palestinians, by Washington and by his own prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
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TEL AVIV // Israel's controversial far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman came under fire from all sides yesterday after he called for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to be ousted.

Mr Lieberman urged the Middle East Quartet - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - to pressure the Palestinian Authority into new elections and a new leadership.

Mr Abbas leads a "despotic government", has a "weak" standing among Palestinians and is intent on destroying chances to renew the peace process, Mr Lieberman said on Monday in a letter to Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief.

His views were rejected yesterday by the Palestinians, by Washington and by his own prime minister,Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said PA elections were "none of his business", the US state department said Mr Abbas remained "a partner for peace" and and Mr Netanyahu's office said the letter "does not represent the opinion of the prime minister or the government".

Mr Lieberman says in his letter: "The time has come to consider a creative solution, to think 'outside the box' to strengthen the Palestinian leadership.

"General elections should be held, and a new, legitimate, hopefully realistic Palestinian leadership should be elected."

The letter also accuses Mr Abbas of being "uninterested or unable" to forge a peace agreement with Israel, partly because of his Fatah party's rivalry with Hamas, which rules Gaza.

It says Mr Abbas, instead of negotiating with Israel, "is creating a culture of blaming Israel for delaying the process, while attempting to achieve advantages without negotiation via blackmailing and continuing attempts to internationalise the conflict".

The letter says Mr Abbas is consistently highlighting Israel's settlement activities as the reason for the failed negotiations - an approach Mr Lieberman calls "a damaging attitude, which does not reflect the reality on the ground".

Mr Abbas speaks with a "moderate and pleasant" voice but is actually out to undermine the peace process, Mr Lieberman says. "He has continued in damaging behaviour towards Israel, including extreme cases of encouraging a culture of hatred, praising terrorists, encouraging sanctions and boycotts and calling into question the legitimacy of Israel."

Mr Lieberman claims the Jordanian leadership agrees with Israel's stance: Amman also blames the Palestinians for not venturing into direct talks with Israel, he says.

The letter is likely to further rock relations between Israelis and Palestinians amid a deadlocked peace process and continued Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, which has kept the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.

Palestinians want the West Bank to become part of their future state, along with the Gaza Strip - which is governed by Hamas - and east Jerusalem.

At the same time, however, the letter also appears to show a division among top Israeli officials on the Israeli approach to the Palestinians and the peace talks.

In Washington, the state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US had "a good working relationship with President Abbas … and so we expect to be able to continue to work well with him."

Mr Erekat said he had contacted representatives of the Quartet to request that the "smear campaign" against Mr Abbas be stopped. He also rejected Mr Lieberman's charges that the PA president was hindering elections.

A reconciliation pact signed by Mr Abbas's Fatah party and the rival Hamas group in April 2011, aiming to set up a caretaker government that would pave the way for elections within a year, has so far not been implemented amid disagreements between the two factions over the plans.

Palestinian analysts said Mr Lieberman's aim was to bolster Israel's international standing, which had deteriorated in the face of growing condemnation of the country's Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, by blaming the Palestinians for the stalled peace process.

"It's a public relations exercise rather than a serious political move," said Ghassan Khatib, a professor of Arab studies at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University and a former spokesman for the PA.