Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Israeli Leader Brings Hard-Liner To Coalition

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bid for political survival, struck an alliance Monday with a hard-liner who has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship, executing lawmakers for talking to Hamas, and bombing Palestinian population centers. Taking the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government would shore up Mr. Olmert's coalition, weakened badly by the war with Hezbollah, but probably ends any chance for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank. Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, announced the deal Monday after meeting with Mr. Olmert. "We are joining the government," said Mr. Lieberman. Mr. Olmert said that as deputy prime minister, Mr. Lieberman would be responsible for "strategic threats," such as Iran's nuclear ambitions. His appointment must be approved by parliament, a step seen as a formality.Mr. Lieberman, 48, entered the political stage a decade ago as a top aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister. He gained a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes mover widely detested for his strong-arm tactics. Mr. Lieberman's comments about Arabs have made him one of Israel's most divisive figures. At the height of fighting against Palestinians in 2002, Mr. Lieberman, then a Cabinet minister, called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centers. More recently, he advocated trading Israeli Arab 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 Hamas, which is running the Palestinian government. Such positions have drawn accusations of racism. On Monday, Mr. Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, dismissed Mr. Lieberman's past stances as rhetoric. Despite misgivings about Mr. Lieberman, the Labor Party, Mr. Olmert's main coalition partner, didn't appear inclined to bolt the government. Labor's central committee is expected to make a decision this week.