SPIEGEL Interview with Avigdor Lieberman 'It Is a Clash of Civilizations'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, 51, discusses his country's controversial settlement policies, the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and the seeming hopelessness of the conflict with the Palestinians.

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Even before he became Israel's foreign minister just under a year ago, Avigdor Lieberman had already established a reputation for his abrasive approach. For example, the former club bouncer, who was born in Moldova and emigrated to Israel in 1978, threatened to bomb the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and publicly stated that he wished President Hosni Mubarek would "go to Hell."

The popularity of Lieberman, with his thick Russian accent, is fueled by two sources: the more than 1 million Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who support a largely hardline course against the Palestinians; and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, where Lieberman himself lives.

When it comes to the settlements in the West Bank, Lieberman pronounce's himself flexible. But he refuses to make any compromises when it comes to preserving the Jewish residential areas that have been constructed in eastern Jerusalem since Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. Around 200,000 Jews live in this annexed part of the city, and the destruction of Arab homes and new construction projects could soon transform Arab residents into a minority.

In the conflict over East Jerusalem, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is even willing to irritate its most important ally, the United States. Following the announcement by the Interior Ministry -- during a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joseph Biden, of all times -- that the Israelis would build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, relations with Washington have fallen to an historic low point. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders have sharply condemned Israel's settlement policies, especially in light of the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Autonomous Authority, had just agreed to new peace talks.

Angered by the announcement, the radical Palestinian organization Hamas called for a "day of rage," which saw skirmishing on the streets of Jerusalem last week between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

Fearing a further escalation, the so-called Middle East Quartet on Friday emphatically called on the Israelis and the Palestinians to launch proximity talks. The quartet, which includes US Secretary of State, the foreign ministers of Russia and the European Union and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also called on Israel to immediately freeze all settlement activity. In order to prevent the rift between Washington and Jerusalem from growing, US Mideast envoy George Mitchell announced that he would travel to Israel at the beginning of the week -- a trip he had previously cancelled.

In a SPIEGEL interview, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman explains why his country is not ready to negotiate over the status of Jerusalem, why he believes peace cannot be imposed in the Middle East and how tougher Western sanctions could be enough to "suffocate" the Iranian nuclear program.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, the week the Palestinians finally agreed to hold new peace negotiations, your government announced plans to build 1,600 more housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. You have provoked not only the Palestinians, but also your most important ally. Why?

Lieberman: We didn't provoke anybody. I hear all the condemnations of Israel regarding so-called East Jerusalem. In the same week 60 people were killed in Pakistan in terror attacks. In every country around us there is bloodshed and tension. But everybody prefers to criticize Israel. I am waiting for the day when the German Bundestag debates the violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

SPIEGEL: But we are speaking to the Israeli foreign minister, not the Saudi one.

Lieberman: To put all the blame on Israel is hypocrisy. We are the only democracy in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict represent maybe 3 percent of all the conflicts in the region. Members of the United States Congress and US Senators tell us that, in their visits to the Gulf countries, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, their Arab counterparts only very briefly mention the Palestinians, and that it is pure lip service. Ninety-five percent of the time they warn about the Iranian threat.

SPIEGEL: But at the moment everybody is speaking about Israel. The US is blaming your government for undermining the peace process and cancelled a visit of its special envoy George Mitchell.

Lieberman: Even between the best of friends mistakes and misunderstandings can happen. We never promised to stop building in Jerusalem. But the announcement during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden was a mistake -- a bureaucratic mistake of the building committee in charge.

SPIEGEL: So you are only criticizing the timing but not the plan to expand existing settlements?

Lieberman: You must understand: It is not settlements. Sixty-five percent of the Jewish population of Jerusalem live in new neighborhoods that we started to build after the Six-Day War in 1967.

SPIEGEL: Even the Americans regard them as settlements. They lie beyond the '67 borders and that is a problem.

Lieberman: They lie beyond the '67 borders, but they are not small villages, but municipal neighbourhoods with tens of thousands of residents.

SPIEGEL: So your problem is even bigger!

Lieberman: It's not a problem, it's an integral part of our capital. We are not ready to negotiate about Jerusalem.


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