Hardliner set to join Olmert gov’t

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bid for political survival, struck an alliance Monday with a tough-talking politician who has called for stripping Arab Israelis of their citizenship, executing lawmakers for talking to Hamas and bombing Palestinian population centres.

Taking the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the government would shore up Olmert’s coalition, weakened badly by the summer’s Lebanon war, but probably puts and end to Olmert’s pledge to pull out of much of the West Bank.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, announced the deal Monday after meeting Olmert. “We are joining the government,” the smiling Lieberman said.

Olmert said as deputy prime minister, Lieberman would be responsible for “strategic threats”, such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His appointment must still be approved by the parliament, a step seen as a formality.

The bearded, bearish Lieberman, 48, entered the political stage a decade ago as a top aide to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He quickly gained a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes mover widely detested for his strong-arm tactics.

He has grown into a potent political force on his own since then, in large part because of his popularity with Israel’s sizeable community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Lieberman, a former bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978 and still speaks with a Russian accent.

Lieberman’s comments about Arabs have made him one of Israel’s most divisive figures.

At the height of fighting against Palestinians in 2002, Lieberman, then a Cabinet minister, called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centres.

More recently, he advocated trading Arab Israeli towns for West Bank settlements — in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship — and called for the execution of Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the Islamic Hamas, which is running the Palestinian government. Such positions have drawn accusations of racism.

But with his coalition weakened by infighting and harsh criticism of the Lebanon war, Olmert had little choice but to look past Lieberman’s liabilities. On Monday, Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, dismissed Lieberman’s past stances as rhetoric.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Lieberman questioned the wisdom of past peace deals where Israel ceded captured land to Arab adversaries. “Maybe we should ask if we should go in a different direction,” Lieberman said.

Dovish Israelis were enraged. Yossi Beilin, leader of the Meretz Party, accused Olmert of “defrauding voters” by striking a deal with Lieberman. Olmert was elected this year on a platform of a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank, but he shelved the plan in the aftermath of the Lebanon war. Lieberman quit a previous government over his rejection of Israel’s pullout from Gaza last year.

With Yisrael Beiteinu and its 11 seats in the coalition, Olmert now controls 78 of 120 seats in parliament, guaranteeing success in crucial parliamentary votes.

“A government must have a stable majority, and we must set the rules for securing this, and a wide political base that would shield it,” Olmert said.

Saeb Erekat, a confidant of the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, termed the development an internal Israeli affair.

“At the end of the day, what we hoped for is to have a partner in Israel who is willing to revive a meaningful peace process that will end this miserable situation between our two peoples,” Erekat said.

Olmert said the inclusion of Lieberman in the government would not result in any policy changes. However, many moderate Israelis expressed concern that Lieberman will have a say in sensitive matters, such as Israel’s dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran.

“He’s bringing an unguided missile, a loose cannon, into his government,” said analyst Yossi Alpher. “This says something very worrisome to me about Olmert’s way of handing out security portfolios.” One of the prices for Lieberman’s inclusion was the Cabinet’s narrow endorsement Sunday of a proposal to replace Israel’s parliamentary rule with a US-style system.

The proposal would include direct election of the prime minister and granting him broader powers. It also would raise the bar for parliamentary representation so high that smaller parties — such as those representing Israeli Arabs — would be hard-pressed to win seats.

Under the current system, the prime minister is elected as head of a party slate and is forced to fight for political survival by cobbling together coalition deals with smaller parties. Lieberman says his proposal would bring much-needed stability to Israel, which has been forced to hold elections five times over the past decade.

Olmert agreed to support the proposal in Cabinet to appease Lieberman, but said Monday he would not vote for it in parliament. It is not expected to win parliamentary approval, in part because of many lawmakers’ misgivings about Lieberman.

“It won’t go anywhere,” said political commentator Hanan Crystal. “He has a very problematic persona.” Despite earlier misgivings about sitting with Lieberman in the government, Olmert’s main coalition partner, the dovish Labour Party, appeared to be disinclined to bolt. Labour’s central committee is expected to make a decision this week.

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