Many people were surprised by comments that new Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman made to the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff this week, just a few hours after a reception in his honor at the Defense Ministry on May 31. “When there is a clash of values between the unity of the people and territorial integrity, the people are more important,” Liberman said.
While Liberman was addressing the General Staff, Israeli mayors were meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters, the Muqata, in Ramallah. At that meeting, they were treated to a no less surprising statement. “If Liberman truly supports the two-state solution, nothing will prevent us from negotiating with him,” said Abbas. “If Liberman really means that, the Palestinians will forget that he accused them of being diplomatic terrorists and will judge him on his future actions.”
These moderate statements by the two leaders, which were made almost simultaneously, were no coincidence. Al-Monitor was informed that the tempered remarks were preceded by a series of messages sent by the Palestinians, saying that they do not reject the idea of a meeting between the Palestinian president and Israel’s new minister of defense.
After word began circulating May 18 that Liberman was to replace Moshe Ya’alon as minister of defense, a brainstorming team was created at the Muqata to work out where Israel is headed. The conclusion was that Liberman, after facing sharp criticism surrounding his appointment as minister of defense, would attempt to shatter his image as an extremist, regardless of whether he himself is responsible for that image or whether it was built by others.
During their discussions, this team of senior Palestinian officials decided that Liberman is very different from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that he would have no problem taking back any harsh statements he made in the past about the PA and Abbas. “He doesn’t have to face the Likud Central Committee, and he can only benefit politically if he pushes a new diplomatic initiative forward, going over the head of Netanyahu the rejectionist,” one Palestinian who was present at the discussions told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
The Palestinians received indications that their assessment was correct much faster than they anticipated. It happened almost immediately, when Liberman was being sworn in to his new position in the presence of Netanyahu on May 30. Not only did Liberman announce that he supports a two-state solution, but he also surprised everyone by saying that the recent speech on Middle East peace delivered by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offers a real opportunity, and that “we must try to pick up the gauntlet.”
While the meeting between the Israeli mayors and Abbas at the Muqata this week was actually planned several weeks ago, the mayors reported that they found the Palestinian leader to be optimistic and determined to move a diplomatic peace process forward.
“I told Abbas that Liberman is very different from the person that is portrayed among the Israeli public. He is very moderate,” Maalot Mayor Shlomo Bohbot told Al-Monitor. “Abbas responded that he would be happy to meet with Liberman.”
Bohbot said that all that was left for the mayors’ delegation to do was to offer support to the Palestinian leader, who hadn't lost hope. “I told Abbas that [Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin shook hands with [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat and withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, and [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin shook hands with [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat and began the peace process. We believe that Liberman will surprise everyone and follow the path set by these leaders who were inspiring in the ways they changed their worldviews. I want to say that the man I found in Ramallah is completely different from the man that the Israeli leadership depicts to the public. Abbas told us, ‘We want peace so that we can bring good tidings to our people and to yours,’” said Bohbot, whose city is in the north of Israel.
“Abbas is determined to test Liberman,” one Palestinian senior diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. “If there is a meeting [between them], and they exchange statements and improve the atmosphere between the two peoples, it would be excellent for everyone. If, on the other hand, Liberman rejects all of our appeals, we will know that he is all talk.”
While Abbas did ask to open a channel of communication with Liberman’s office, using the mayors as a conduit, it would not be the only channel open to him. Ever since Liberman’s appointment was announced, messages have been relayed to Israel by way of a “military channel,” i.e., the defense coordination committees that exist between Israel and the Palestinians. These messages, sent via the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, focused mainly on the Palestinians’ desire to maintain and preserve the close cooperation that exists between the parties. The Palestinians even advised the Israelis to brief the new defense minister about the current state of this cooperation and to emphasize its achievements in curbing the intifada.
Among other things, Mordechai was asked to relay the message that in order to maintain the current state of affairs and advance the diplomatic process, Abbas does not reject the idea of holding a public meeting with Liberman, even though Abbas knows that he will come under severe criticism for it from his own constituency. Palestinians associated with Abbas believe that the Palestinian president can overcome this criticism if Liberman provides a “positive milieu” to the idea of such a meeting.
As aforementioned, Liberman indeed gave that “positive milieu” to Abbas. “Based on Liberman’s public remarks, we take away a few things,” one Palestinian diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. “Liberman supports a two-state solution, the adoption of the Arab League’s initiative with the necessary emendations, a withdrawal from the territories and acceptance of the Egyptian president’s initiative, who is [Sisi] the key to progress.”
Former Knesset member Taleb el-Sana, an Arab who works with the Palestinian Integration Committee, told Al-Monitor that the PA plans to get everything it can out of the possibility of advancing a diplomatic initiative through Liberman. “Abbas is willing to meet with anyone who is willing to meet with him, and to speak to anyone who is willing to speak to him. When it comes to Liberman, this is the time to see if he is serious or not.”
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