Israeli leaders apologize to Mubarak for right-winger's words
Peres, Olmert tell Egyptian of their respect for him
JERUSALEM - Israel's president and prime minister called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday to apologize for inflammatory comments made against him by an extreme right-wing Israeli lawmaker.
Avigdor Lieberman complained before the Knesset, Israel's parliament yesterday that Israeli leaders often see Mubarak in Egypt but he has never made a return visit to Israel.
"If he wants to speak with us then let him come over here," said Lieberman, founder of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party. "If he doesn't want to come, then he can go to hell."
President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the remarks and in separate telephone calls to Mubarak expressed their respect toward him. Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but relations have often been frosty since.
Mubarak has only traveled to Israel once - for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 - but he has never come to Jerusalem on an official diplomatic visit.
Peres, in a statement, said Israel has great respect for Mubarak and his country's leading role in promoting peace in the region.
"Israeli-Egyptian relations are full of content and take place on many levels," Peres said. "They are based on mutual respect and no single comment will ruin this deep relationship."
Olmert called the comments "unnecessary and harming."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also joined the chorus of condemnations.
"We have great respect for our neighbors, especially Egypt, which is a leading country in our region and with whom we have a peace agreement that has withstood many tests," he said. "Any comment like this is inappropriate."
Lieberman, 50, is one of Israel's most divisive politicians. He became a national figure more than a decade ago as a top aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A powerful behind-the-scenes mover, he became widely feared for his strong-arm tactics.
He later created the Yisrael Beiteinu (Hebrew for "Israel is our home") party, whose platform says Israel should transfer Israeli Arab towns to Palestinian jurisdiction and annex large Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel.
At the height of fighting against Palestinians in 2002, Lieberman, then a Cabinet minister, called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centers.
He has also called for executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with Hamas leaders and has advocated bombing Iran and Egypt.
Now in the opposition, Lieberman was speaking yesterday at a memorial ceremony for former minister Rehavam Zeevi, a hardliner who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen in 2001. He said Zeevi never would have agreed to the Israeli leadership's capitulation to Egypt.
"Time and time again we have traveled to meet Mubarak in Egypt. He has never agreed to come here for an official visit as president," he said.
"Any leader who respects himself would condition these visits - if he wants to speak with us then let him come over here. If he doesn't want to come, then he can go to hell."