Israeli FM commits to peace

ROME: Israel's foreign minister, whose anti-Arab statements have frayed diplomatic nerves, committed himself on Monday to Mideast peace, but did not endorse the idea of a Palestinian state as sought by the United States and the European Union.

As he kicked off a European tour in Rome, hardline politician Avigdor Lieberman skirted around the issue of a Palestinian state, putting him on a possible collision course with U.S. and EU efforts for a solution to the region's conflict.

"This government's goal is not produce slogans or make pompous declarations, but to reach concrete results," he said when asked if he would ever endorse a Palestinian state.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Italian counterpart Franco Frattini, Lieberman said he was confident the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would "reach a secure and definitive peace with the Palestinians and the Arab nations around us."

Lieberman stressed the government was still drawing up its new foreign policy, which Netanyahu is expected to unveil before talks with President Barack Obama in mid-May.

Netanyahu, who took office in March, has so far refused to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state — a cornerstone of the West's policy in the region.

Lieberman, who heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu, or "Israel is our home" party, has raised concerns in the West with his fiery rhetoric. In his first speech as foreign minister, he said concessions to Palestinians only invite war, and criticized U.S. peace efforts last year.

At the news conference, Frattini said: "I reminded minister Lieberman that Europe and the United States agree on the importance of making peace our common goal."

Frattini did not comment directly on Lieberman's positions, but in an interview published Sunday by Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot he said the peace process "must continue on the basis of the principle of two states for two people."

According to a translation of the interview provided by Italy's Foreign Ministry, Frattini also said he would ask Lieberman to "tone down his statements and act to create a climate of collaboration."

Lieberman, who was making his first official trip as foreign minister, was scheduled to meet with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday before continuing on to France, Germany and the Czech Republic.

He said he had traveled to Europe to exchange opinions on Israel's new policies and push for a planned upgrade in EU relations, which some officials in the bloc have threatened to put on hold.

Upgraded ties would give Israel better access to EU markets, closer cooperation in areas such as energy, environment and battling crime and terrorism, and more educational exchanges.

Last week, the EU's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, criticized Netanyahu's refusal to endorse a Palestinian state and said the upgrade would depend on Israel's commitment to the two-state solution.

Israel warned the EU that such criticism endangered the bloc's role as broker in the peace process, and Lieberman said Monday that the upgrade must "not be connected to the other problems of the Middle East."

Frattini backed him on that point, saying that "it is in our common interest for Europe to have stronger ties with Israel so that Europe will be able to play a greater role" in the Middle East.

Under Berlusconi's conservative governments, Rome has become one of Israel's closest friends in Europe while maintaining good relations with the Arab world. Italy was among EU countries that recently joined the United States and Israel in boycotting a U.N. conference on racism in Geneva marred by anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Lieberman on Monday also welcomed Pope Benedict XVI's forthcoming Mideast visit, saying he hoped it would help boost relations with moderate Arab countries and improve interfaith dialogue.

Benedict travels to the region May 8-15 in a pilgrimage that will take him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territ