Far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman stunned diplomats in his first speech as Israel's foreign minister yesterday when he rejected the past year of US-led negotiations and said that a previous commitment Israel made to Palestinian statehood "had no validity".
Mr Lieberman reinforced fears that his government will steer the country in a more hawkish direction when he added that concessions to Palestinians would be "mistaken". The remarks contradicted Israel's previous commitments agreed at the Annapolis conference in 2007, and drew an immediate response from Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, who emphasised that the US was "committed to the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security".
Expectations had been raised in recent weeks that Mr Lieberman would seek to soften his image, and that the new hardline government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu would avoid alienating the international community.
Mr Lieberman's speech came a day after Mr Netanyahu offered the Palestinians self-rule in place of the statehood that had at least rhetorically been on offer in a declaration accompanying the relaunch of peace talks under the leadership of Ehud Olmert at the Annapolis conference. But Mr Lieberman said "The Israeli government never ratified Annapolis, nor did parliament."
Mr Lieberman took issue with the very idea of concessions towards the Palestinians saying that "whoever thinks that through concessions peace will be achieved is mistaken. He is only inviting pressure and more wars."
Mr Lieberman said that instead of the Annapolis process, Israel would follow the "road map", the name of a 2003 blueprint of reciprocal steps advancing to a two-state solution. But Israel's cabinet never ratified that agreement, and the government has instead used the term to refer to a cabinet decision spelling out reservations about the plan.
A foreign ministry official admitted that he did not know to which of the two "road maps" Mr Lieberman was referring. The official sought to play down the importance of the speech, saying that "one shouldn't read into it too much. He left a lot of unclear areas about what he means".
The new posture of the Israeli government is certain to complicate the already tenuous position of Palestinian moderates, foremost among them President Mahmoud Abbas, who has staked everything on the two-state solution. "This minister is an obstacle to peace," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Mr Abbas. "Nothing obliges us to deal with a racist person hostile to peace."
Tzipi Livni, who in the previous government oversaw the final status negotiations and was present in the Foreign Ministry yesterday, told Mr Lieberman that "your speech has proven to me that I did the right thing by not joining [a national unity government]". And a European diplomat said that the speech did not augur well for Israel's ties with the international community. "Governments work together well when they share objectives," he said. "When they don't, it creates problems."