Lieberman and Mitchell in 2009
Lieberman and Mitchell in 2009Israel news photo: Flash 90

The United States has ignored Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s controversial speech in the United Nations Tuesday as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell talks with Palestinian Authority and Israeli leaders in an effort to thaw the freeze in direct talks.

Lieberman raised a storm by suggesting a land transfer that in effect switches large Arab and Jewish population centers from Israel to the Palestinian Authority and vice versa without expelling anyone from his home, but he has stated the same proposal several times the past year. The only new element was that he chose the United Nations as a forum to repeat his idea.

Lieberman, known for a “straight talk” style that belies modern Western diplomacy that tries to cast an optimistic light on most issues, said that a peace agreement between the PA and Israel is likely to take several decades. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants a final status agreement in one year.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told questioning reporters Tuesday, “I’m not questioning that there may be divergent views between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, but I’ll defer to the Israeli Government to explain the difference."

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu so far has played the diplomat by carefully preserving his government coalition while trying to satisfy both President Obama and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He distanced himself from Lieberman’s speech without totally rejecting his oft-stated proposal.

However, the timing of the speech in the United Nations hours before Mitchell talked with the Prime Minister Wednesday morning was not welcome. "Lieberman's address was not coordinated with the Prime Minister," the office of the Prime Minister said in a statement. "Netanyahu is the one handling the negotiations on Israel's behalf. The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else."

Lieberman stated that his population transfer idea is not only nothing new but also has been reported several times,. He told The Australian last week, "This is a subject that we've run away from until now, but we can't go on like this. It's as if someone were selling you an apartment on the condition that his mother-in-law continue living there."

Mitchell displayed his usual optimism although tempered it by saying that the Obama administration knew there would be “bumps” along the road. He added that the American government is "more determined than ever" to achieve Middle East peace.

State Department reporters have become increasingly skeptical, and their questions at the daily State Department briefing suggest they feel the Obama administration is trying to reach an agreement more for the sake of having a document than for creating a lasting peace.

Reuters noted that a collapse in the diplomatic process would be a “major political embarrassment for Obama, “ who likely will lose his Democratic party majority in Congressional midterm elections in November, according to almost all polls.

Returning Mitchell's optimistic tone, Prime Minister Netanyahu told him at his private home in Caesarea Wednesday, "I am committed and the government is committed to reaching a peace agreement that will preserve the security and vital interests of the State of Israel. We are committed to following this path. I hope the good talks that began with (Abbas) will continue without interruption so that we can try to achieve this goal.”

Abbas has frozen the talks, threatening to put a final end to them if Israel does not restore a 10-month building freeze on new Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria that was instituted to meet his condition to sit down at the same table with Israel. He only agreed to the talks as the freeze was about to expire, an obvious ploy to have the freeze extended.