By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's right-wing foreign minister on Friday defended U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry whose Middle East peace drive has seen mounting criticism from within the Israeli government.
The conciliatory remarks by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has previously been a vocal critic of international efforts to set up a Palestinian state on Israeli-occupied territory, could help Kerry cobble together consensus for pursuing the peace negotiations.
"I want to make clear - Kerry is a true friend of Israel," Lieberman told business leaders in Tel Aviv. "What is the point of turning friend into foe?"
Lieberman has taken a more circumspect tack since resuming the role of foreign minister after he was cleared of graft charges last year.
Kerry launched the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace push last July and has visited the region more than 10 times in the past year. He hopes to complete a "framework" accord by an April deadline and will then try to negotiate a final peace deal by the end of 2014, a U.S. official has said. However, both sides are standing firm on their demands in decades-old disputes.
Israeli ultra-nationalists and their representatives in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government have come out against the prospect - however remote - of removing Jewish settlers, citing historical claims on biblical lands sought by the Palestinians for an independent state.
FUTURE OF GOVERNMENT
Kerry has been criticized from within the Israeli government in recent weeks. Israeli media quoted Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon as ridiculing Kerry as "messianic" over U.S. proposals that could increase Palestinian security controls in the West Bank were Israel to withdraw.
After Kerry warned last week that Israel's international isolation could deepen along with the diplomatic deadlock, another senior Israeli minister said the Netanyahu government would not negotiate "with a gun to its head".
Lieberman said fellow rightists were "competing to show off rhetorical ability - who can be more crass, more vociferous" against Kerry, adding: "This fulmination does not help. We should relax a little."
Lieberman's Israel is Our Home party formed a joint list with Netanyahu's Likud ahead of the last election. Their coalition government includes the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, which opposes Palestinian statehood and has chafed at Israel's cooperation with Kerry.
A Palestinian peace deal was unlikely to break up the government, Lieberman said, playing down the risk of a Jewish Home walkout: "There's no option of changing the coalition.
"When there is a dispute between the wholeness of the nation and the wholeness of the land, the wholeness of the nation is more important," Lieberman said, signaling his support for potential future territorial handovers.
He praised Kerry for handling the negotiations "in the proper manner".
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador in Israel, predicted the parties would agree on a peacemaking "framework" by April.
"There is a discussion of the caveats that the two sides might have regarding this framework, that is possible too, but the objective is that this will be a framework affirming that the negotiations will continue," he told Israel's Army Radio.
Israeli censure of Kerry was "absurd and hurtful", he said.
"This negotiation, this process, is not about Secretary of State John Kerry. It is a process about the future of the people of Israel and the Palestinian people and their chances of achieving peace, security and prosperity," Shapiro said.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Janet Lawrence)