Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused the Palestinian president of having a 'weak standing' among his own people. Photograph: Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of interfering in internal Palestinian affairs and launching "a deliberate campaign of distortion, hatred and incitement", after the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for elections to replace the Palestinian president,Mahmoud Abbas.
In a letter to EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, and other members of the Middle East quartet, Lieberman accuses Abbas of heading "a despotic government riddled with corruption" and "personally acting to undermine attempts to renew the peace process, despite Israeli gestures and confidence building measures."
Lieberman accuses Abbas of having a "weak standing" among his own people and being "uninterested or unable … to reach an agreement which would bring an end to the conflict".
"General elections in the PA [Palestinian Authority] should be held, and a new, legitimate, hopefully realistic Palestinian leadership should be elected," Lieberman writes.
The letter, dated 20 August, was published on Wednesday by the Israeli daily Haaretz, sparking a storm of protest from Palestinian officials.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh described the text as "incitement" liable to create an "atmosphere of violence and instability".
"Lieberman's comments regarding elections in the PA constitute meddling in internal Palestinian affairs," he added.
Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the PLO, which handles diplomatic contacts with Israel, said the letter demonstrated Israel's "arrogance, manipulation of facts, and outright racism. Rather than complying with international law and signed agreements, the Israeli government has launched a deliberate campaign of distortion, hatred and incitement."
Israel has complained previously about Abbas's refusal to restart peace talks over the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, but he has always been described as a potential peace partner.
Officials representing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly distanced him from his foreign minister's remarks. An aide to Netanyahu told the Guardian that the prime minister was not aware of the letter before it was sent.
"The letter by the foreign minister does not reflect the view of the prime minister, nor of the government as a whole," said the official. "Palestinian president Abbas has created difficulties preventing the restarting of negotiations, but Israel nevertheless remains committed to continuing to try to engage with the Palestinians and of course we don't interfere in the election cycles of others."
Observers of Israel's byzantine coalition politics said it was possible that the letter was released for internal political purposes, to boost the government's rightwing credentials and domestic popularity ahead of an imminent general election.
"This letter was not written overnight," said Gerald Steinberg, professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University. "The letter says very explicitly what Lieberman has been saying to Israeli audiences, and what many Israelis believe. Lieberman has often played the role of saying things that Netanyahu may think but as prime minister is reluctant to say."
But Steinberg also recalled that differences between prime ministers and foreign ministers are a long-standing Israeli tradition.
"This is very much part of Israel's political system," he said. "The most blatant example was when Shimon Peres as foreign minister promoted the Oslo peace process behind the back of the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin."