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Liberman and the Palestinians Interview with Palestinian Affairs expert Khaled Abu Toameh

Viewpoints, June 2016

Avigdor Liberman took over as Israel’s Defense Minister on May 31. This followed a surprise turnabout when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been conducting coalition negotiations with the center-left Zionist Union party, chose instead the radical right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, led by Liberman. Leading journalist Khaled Abu Toameh assesses how the further right-wing swing of the government will impact on the Palestinians.

Avigdor Liberman takes over at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, May 31; Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot is on his left. Credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY

Avigdor Liberman takes over at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, May 31; Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot is on his left. Credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY

IPDF: How are the appointment of Avigdor Liberman as Defense Minister and the entry of his right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party in the Israeli government coalition going to affect relations with the Palestinian Authority?

KAT: The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been cautious and diplomatic in its reaction. However, many PA officials denounced Liberman as a racist and pointed out that the appointment was a sign of the ongoing radicalism inside Israel and proof that this government is not interested in any peace process with the Palestinians.

Officially, PA leaders say that Liberman will be judged by his actions and not only his words.

IPDF: What was the reaction of Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip?

Hamas was the first Palestinian party to comment on the appointment of Liberman. Its reaction included a warning to Liberman against attacking the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders said that Liberman threats do not scare them. However, they also stressed that Hamas is not interested in another war with Israel, but was ready for any confrontation initiated by Israel.

Other radical groups in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank issued similar statements and said that this was anyway a right-wing government and that Liberman as Defense Minister wouldn’t make things worse than they already are.

IPDF: How is the new coalition going to affect the dormant peace process?

KAT: The Palestinians have reacted with mixed feelings to the appointment of Liberman. But the general feeling among most of them is that there would be no real changes in Israel government policy toward the Palestinians and the so-called peace process. They also believe that the situation can’t get any worse.

IPDF: Are the Palestinians likely to pursue the unilateral declaration of independence option?

Many Palestinians are today convinced that no Israeli government would comply with their demands. That’s why the Palestinian strategy now is to internationalize the conflict with the hope of imposing a solution on Israel.

IPDF: The so-called ‘intifada of the knives’ seems to be dying down – could Liberman’s appointment cause a flare-up?

There are a number of reasons why the knife intifada is dying. First improved security coordination between the PA security services and Israel. The PA services have been arresting Palestinians on suspicion of planning attacks on Israelis. Also the PA is closely monitoring social media to uncover would-be assailants.

Secondly, tough Israeli security measures, such as preemptive arrests and interrogations of Palestinian activists and inciters, have proved successful. Also Israel’s punitive measures such as house demolition have served as a deterrent. This in addition to the fact that many of the attackers are killed even before they manage to harm anyone.

Thirdly, there’s the feeling that the intifada is not achieving anything and that the Palestinians need to consider other options. There have been complaints that Palestinian youths are dying in vain and that this phenomenon has to stop to spare lives of young Palestinians.

Jerusalem-based Khaled Abu Toameh is a journalist, lecturer and documentary filmmaker. He is a senior distinguished fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute, former producer and consultant for NBC News and a former Palestinian Affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.