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Israel's Olmert brings hawk into his coalition

Rightist party leader has advocated annexing parts of the West Bank.

October 24, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moved Monday to shore up his unpopular center-left coalition by adding a far-right party whose leader has advocated annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced the deal after meeting with Olmert. "We are joining the government," he said.

Olmert said Lieberman would be given the rank of deputy prime minister and be put in charge of dealing with "strategic threats" to Israel, including Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The prime minister asserted that the embrace of Lieberman and his party's sizable parliamentary bloc would not result in any policy changes.

Olmert and his centrist Kadima party came to power in March on a pledge to dismantle dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank while reinforcing others. But the 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon highlighted Israel's vulnerability to attack from relinquished territory, and since then Olmert has shelved his proposal.

Lieberman's entry into the government appears to ensure that Olmert will not revive any ideas about relinquishing settlements.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Lieberman questioned the wisdom of past peace accords that ceded Israeli-occupied land to Arab adversaries. "Maybe we should ask if we should go in a different direction," he said.

The government's popularity declined sharply after the war. With Kadima's chief partner, the leftist Labor Party, threatening to withdraw from the coalition, Olmert faced the prospect of new elections that polls said he was certain to lose.

Lieberman's party, whose name translates as Israel Our Home, would add 11 seats to the 67 already loyal to the government within Israel's 120-member Knesset, or parliament. His appointment to the government is subject to Cabinet and parliamentary approval.

Labor, with 19 seats, was divided over Lieberman, but political analysts said it was expected to remain in the government.

The 48-year-old Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova and a former nightclub bouncer, is one of Israel's most divisive politicians. He has advocated redrawing Israel's borders in a way that would trade Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements and strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship. He once called for the execution of Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel.

He has twice before served as a Cabinet minister. In 2004 he was fired by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for opposing the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Critics are less worried about Lieberman's influence on policy than his appointment to handle sensitive security issues.

Olmert "is bringing an unguided missile, a loose cannon, into his government," said political analyst Yossi Alpher. "This says something very worrisome to me about Olmert's way of handing out security portfolios."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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