At a meeting with journalists in Jerusalem yesterday, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman recalled a trip he once took to Asia with his good friend, Republican Senator John McCain. On that trip, he received the impression that there is a genuine war between Islamic extremists and the majority of Muslims who just want to live a quiet life. It seems to me, he said, that this is also the situation in the Palestinian Authority – and therefore, it is not the Palestinian people who are to blame for the violence of the past two years, but rather Palestinian terrorists.

The press conference and a subsequent conversation revealed more than a little about how the observant Jewish senator from Connecticut – his party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2000, who said yesterday that he will “probably seek” the presidential nomination in 2004 – believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved, as well as his assessment of the conflict’s significance and ramifications.

He was, of course, cautious, as someone vying for the presidential nomination must be at this stage. But he nevertheless made it clear that he views the solution to the conflict as two states for two peoples – “a free and secure Palestine” alongside a free and secure Israel. [“There’s strong support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independent statehood,” Lieberman told reporters in Ramallah earlier yesterday.

“The question is whether there will be sufficient leadership here and in the world to bring this about sooner rather than later.”]

He is troubled by the expansion of the settlements, and he said so to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday. [He told the reporters in Ramallah that once the Iraqi crisis is resolved, Israel is likely to face American pressure on this issue. He also said he was troubled by the humanitarian situation in the territories, saying he had observed “desperate humanitarian conditions” during his tour of Ramallah.]

He believes that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat – who was pointedly left off the long list of Palestinian officials with whom he met yesterday – has failed as a leader, and that a halt to terror attacks is a necessary precondition for progress.

The great importance Lieberman attaches to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be seen in one sentence he tossed in at the end of his remarks: A solution to the crisis, he said, could serve as a model that could help prevent a “clash of civilizations” in other regions. This is a view that swells the conflict in the territories to frightening proportions. He also noted that the support Israel currently enjoys in the United States stems from the link Americans see between Israel’s experiences and their own war on terror.

Overall, as is typical of American politicians, Lieberman is optimistic. He believes that American involvement is essential to resolve the conflict, as America is the only mediator accepted by both sides. And in the end, this mediator has only one serious proposal up its sleeve, he said: The Clinton plan is essentially indistinguishable from the goal at which the Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni plans – and most recently the “road map” now being worked on by the Quartet (the U.S., UN, European Union and Russia) – were all aimed. Furthermore, a free and democratic Palestinian state could serve a model for other Arab states, he told the Palestinian officials with whom he met yesterday.

Lieberman believes that the Bush administration’s decision to postpone publication of the road map was reasonable under the circumstances. There is no point to the map if it does not lead to progress, he said, and at the moment, it appears that it would not. What would lead to progress? Perhaps the talks Fatah is holding with Hamas in Cairo over a cessation of terror attacks, he said. He discussed these talks yesterday with Abu Mazen and other PA officials and was impressed by their “enthusiasm” and willingness to move forward. His impression is that the Palestinians understand that the violence has gained them nothing. He said the Cairo talks could potentially spark a breakthrough even before the expected American war on Iraq – and if so, he would expect a “positive response” from Israel.

Lieberman is a hawk on foreign policy, and on many issues his approach is similar to that of the current President Bush. He believes that George Bush senior erred by not completing the job in Iraq in 1991, and he was one of the sponsors of a 1998 law that made regime change in Iraq America’s declared foreign policy. Yesterday he said that the Bush administration was handling the Iraqi issue well, and that he supports the administration’s policy “because it’s right.”

Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, he said, was “good rhetoric – not good foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. should not deal with North Korea the way it is dealing with Iraq. In North Korea, he believes that a diplomatic solution is possible. On Iran – and Syria – he recommends waiting, as regime change in Iraq could have a positive effect on these countries’ behavior as well.

Lieberman believes that a Jew can become president of the United States. He truly believes this, he said. He said he will make a final decision on whether to run in January, but it seems as if he has already decided. “It’s an enormous decision, and it obviously has a significant impact on my family’s life,” he said. His wife and daughter, sitting next to him in their suite at the King David Hotel, seem to have heard this sentence before – and to be fully cognizant of its meaning.

This news story ran in HaAretz on 24 December 2002