By The Associated Press
JERUSALEM – The European Union’s foreign policy chief on Wednesday kicked off a Mideast trip with a tense exchange with the newest addition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, saying he was meeting a man “I have disagreed with my entire life.”
Javier Solana made the comments ahead of a meeting with Avigdor Lieberman, who agreed earlier this week to join the government as the deputy prime minister in charge of strategic threats.
Lieberman’s hawkish views toward the Palestinians have raised concerns that he will hinder efforts to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
“I am here to meet with a man I have disagreed with my entire life,” Solana told reporters at the Knesset. “Now that he is a member of the government, I would like to see the position he has.”
Lieberman quickly interjected, urging the European envoy to give him a chance. “I will try to explain our approach, our plan,” he said.
He said his ideas are more “humanitarian and comprehensive than any other I know on the table today. And I hope that this will be the first and not the last meeting.”
Solana arrived in Israel at the beginning of a six-day mission to the Middle East, aiming to breathe new life into peace efforts.
Lieberman’s appointment to the government must still be approved by the Knesset. But the vote, expected early next week, is seen as a formality.
Lieberman is a controversial figure in Israeli politics. He supports ridding Israel of many of its Arab citizens by swapping Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements and has called for the execution of Arab lawmakers who met with members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
But with his coalition weakened by infighting and last summer’s month-long war in Lebanon, PM Olmert was forced to court Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitunu party into the government to shore up his government.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, head of the Labor Party, Olmert’s main coalition partner, said Wednesday he favors remaining in the government, despite his concerns about Lieberman.
He made the decision after meeting Olmert on Wednesday, the prime minister’s office announced. Labor’s 2,400 member central committee will vote on the matter in the coming days and is expected to endorse Peretz’s decision.