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Bibi backs away from Lieberman population exchange plan

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NEW YORK (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced itself from his foreign minister’s plan that would transfer Israeli Arab towns to a future Palestinian state in exchange for annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Avigdor Lieberman offered a draft of his proposal Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It would redraw the borders of Israel to include several large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and exclude large Israeli Arab towns, which would become part of a newly created Palestinian state.

"A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations," Lieberman told the General Assembly, Haaretz reported.

Lieberman stressed that his proposals did not represent a scheme for "populations transfer," a phrase that evokes historical proposals by Israel’s extreme right to evict Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

"We are not talking about population transfer but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality," he said.

Lieberman’s proposal has been criticized by many in Israel as racist and ill received by Israeli Arabs, who comprise approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Netanyahu’s backing away from the plan raises questions of a rift in his coalition, where Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is the second largest party.

"Lieberman’s address was not coordinated with the prime minister," Haaretz quoted the Prime Minister’s Office as saying in a statement. "Netanyahu is the one handling the negotiations on Israel’s behalf. The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else."

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched earlier this month in Washington have hit a snag over the expiration of Israel’s moratorium on West Bank settlement building.

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