JERUSALEM – Israel's powerful foreign minister declared Thursday that there is no chance of reaching a final accord with the Palestinians any time soon, casting a pall over the U.S. Mideast envoy's latest effort to get peace talks moving again.
Peacemaking policy in Israel is decided by the prime minister's office, and not the foreign ministry. But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman carries significant weight in Israeli decision-making, and his is a sentiment common among confidants of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Barack Obama brought Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together in New York last month in an effort to jumpstart talks that broke down months ago. So far, no breakthroughs have been announced.
Since the New York summit, U.S. envoy George Mitchell met with representatives of Netanyahu and Abbas in the United States, and returned to the region this week. He was to meet with Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday and has sitdowns planned with Netanyahu and Abbas for Friday.
Israeli media reported that a Mitchell aide told Israeli journalists Wednesday that the enovy's visit was not likely to conclude with an announcement on talks resuming.
Lieberman told Israel Radio on Thursday that anyone who thinks the two sides can soon reach a deal ending their decades-old conflict "doesn't understand the situation and is spreading delusions."
What the two sides should do, he said, was to come up with a long-term interim arrangement that would ensure prosperity, security and stability, and leave the tough issues "to a much later stage."
This approach runs counter to U.S. efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal quickly. Obama has declared that establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel is a vital U.S. interest. Also, Israel would not find a Palestinian partner for putting off a resolution to the conflict indefinitely.
Lieberman's view does not bode well for U.S. attempts to restart negotiations.
Mitchell has been laboring for months to pressure Israel to curb settlement construction. Israel has agreed to limited and temporary restrictions on building in the West Bank, but has resisted a total freeze. It has rejected any limitations on construction in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and east Jerusalem for part of their future state, along with the Gaza Strip, now ruled by Islamic Hamas militants.
Abbas has said repeatedly that he wouldn't go back to the negotiating table without a freeze. He also demands that talks begin where they broke off, with a promise from Israel that all issues will be on the table. Netanyahu has said he wouldn't be bound by the previous Israeli government's actions.
Abbas could be hard-pressed to back down now that he's dropped efforts to bring Israel before a war crimes tribunal in connection with its winter war in the Gaza Strip.
Nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the war, including hundreds of civilians. Israel, which lost 13 civilians and soldiers in the war, launched the campaign to end years of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns.