Lieberman asks to meet with shunned Belarusian leader

By Barak Ravid

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is to arrive in the Belarus capital Minsk tomorrow, following up on his request for a meeting with President Alexander Lukashenko. About a year ago, Israel-Belarus relations became strained after Lukashenko, known in the West as "Europe's last dictator," made an anti-Semitic statement.

Lieberman is to arrive in Minsk after a two-day visit to Moscow. He will meet with senior defense officials, the foreign minister and Jewish community leaders. It will be Lieberman's second visit to the city since he was appointed foreign minister. His first visit, a private one, came in February, a few days after the Knesset elections.

Lieberman has visited Belarus several times in the past. As infrastructure minister in Ariel Sharon's government, Lieberman asked that the Foreign Ministry receive special funding to reopen the Israeli embassy in Minsk. He also sought the appointment of veteran diplomat Ze'ev Gur-Aryeh as ambassador to Belarus. Gur-Aryeh is currently Lieberman's adviser on the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Lukashenko has been close to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as well as the Iranian and Sudanese regimes. These relationships led to a cooling of Belarus' ties with the United States and the European Union. The isolation has eased in recent months with the EU, though not with the United States.

About a year ago, Lukashenko told the press that "the Jews have turned [the city] Bobruisk into a pigsty." He added that, "After all, it is a Jewish city, and the Jews do not take care of the place where they live. Look at Israel, I was there and saw it myself."

Israel recalled its ambassador after the remarks. A few weeks later, Lukashenko sent a special envoy to Jerusalem with an apology.

Lieberman's bureau said yesterday that Pope Benedict XVI and the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana had recently met with Lukashenko.

"Most Western countries have representatives in Belarus, including the United States, " the bureau said, noting that Israel had returned its ambassador to Minsk.

The bureau added that Belarus' response during the war in Gaza was "fair to Israel" and that during Israel's 60th anniversary, Belarus had "sent a plane full of its best artists to celebrate with Israel. Lukashenko apologized for his statement and the ambassador returned during the term of Lieberman's predecessor."



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