Liberman hails Qatar schism as opportunity for Israel

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday said the diplomatic fallout between several Arab states and Qatar had created opportunities for Israel to collaborate with others in the region to combat terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives all announced they were cutting ties to Qatar and booting the country from an Arab coalition fighting in Yemen early Monday on allegations of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region, amid a deepening fissure.

The crisis is “not because of Israel, not because of Jews, not because of Zionism,” but “rather from fears of terrorism,” Liberman told the Knesset plenum during an hour-long Question Time session.

“There is no doubt this opens many possibilities for collaboration in the fight against terror,” the defense minister added, in the first official Israeli government response to the regional shake-up.

Israel reportedly maintains quiet security cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, with their shared distrust of Iran trumping a lack of formalized ties.

Qatar has in the past expressed openness to maintaining trade relations with Israel and has hosted Israeli officials. However, the country also hosts top officials of the Hamas terror group. On Sunday, a report indicated Doha would demand some Hamas leaders leave, citing “external pressure.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also addressed the Qatar rift on Monday, urging Israel to push for a regional peace process now that the moderate states have “cut ties from a country that funds terrorism against the Western world and Israel in particular.”

“Now is the time to show leadership and head toward a brave regional effort,” said Herzog.

During the Knesset session, Liberman maintained that Israel’s rapprochement with these countries must not be contingent on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He also toned down his concerns over the massive arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, expressing confidence the Jewish state would continue to uphold its qualitative military edge in the region.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, second from right, at the inauguration ceremony of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Attempts to condition ties between Israel and Arab states on Palestinian statehood are “a mistake,” said Liberman, pointing to Israel’s successful treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which were independent of the conflict.

“You must not condition the ties between Israel and the moderate states on the Palestinian issue,” he said.

Trump has signaled his interest in restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while touting a “rare opportunity” for Israel to build ties with Arab countries. However, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that peace with Arab countries and shared concerns over Iran could preempt a resolution with the Palestinians, the US president has stressed that Arab countries were eager for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to lay the groundwork.

The defense minister also appeared somewhat resigned to the $110 billion arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia. Liberman last month had said the deal, inked by US President Donald Trump during his trip to Riyadh last month, left him uneasy, as it could prompt a “crazy” arms race in the region.

Downplaying concerns, Liberman on Monday said he believes Israel will preserve its military edge.

“Our job is not to prevent deals between the US and moderate states,” Liberman said. “Our job is to preserve our qualitative edge.”

“I am certain, despite the incredible scope of the deal, we will be able uphold the qualitative edge,” he opined, adding that the Americans have been responsive to Israel.

He also denied that Israel was caught off-guard by the deal and found out about it from media reports. “We dealt with the deal before it became known to the public, during [the announcement], and we are dealing with it now,” he said.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, right, shakes hands with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the ministry's Tel Aviv headquarters on May 9, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Liberman was asked by several lawmakers about Israel’s efforts to rescue the two Israelis being held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, both of whom entered the enclave several years ago and are believed to suffer from mental illness — as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — being held by the terror group.

In response, Liberman slammed international human rights groups, saying they have not even attempted to contact the Hamas-held captives.

He said there would be no humanitarian improvements for Gaza until “the Red Cross at least visits them,” referring to both the living Israelis and the remains of the soldiers.

“There is no attempt we haven’t tried [to bring them back], no idea we haven’t raised,” Liberman told lawmakers.

The parents of Avraham Abera Mengistu protest outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, September 11, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The defense minister also criticized international groups over the execution of three Gazans accused of collaborating with Israel to assassinate Gaza terror chief Mazen Faqha, saying “I didn’t hear a single condemnation.”

The terror group were as successful in proving the connection between the three to the killing of Faqha as much as they could to the 1914 assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, he said wryly.

The wide-ranging session also saw the defense minister fielding questions on defense exports, prompted by Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg.

Asked about sales to Burma, the defense minister said “on the matter of defense exports, we subject ourselves to the norms of the enlightened world.” He said arms sales require the approval of the foreign minister, defense minister, and prime minister, and restrictions are tight. However, he added that not all military equipment — listing riot dispersal methods as an example — were beyond the pale for sales to various countries, without elaborating.

Liberman also dismissed a UN report that linked Israeli spy tech to South Sudan, saying the information is “simply not correct,” while cautioning Knesset members not to speak about the issue publicly.

In his remarks, Liberman further said the Defense Ministry was seeking to improve conditions at West Bank checkpoints, noting that “I acknowledge and agree that the situation is not okay.”

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