Wed, Oct 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Hawkish Russian immigrant returns to Israeli Cabinet


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bid for political survival, struck an alliance on Monday with a politician who has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship, executing lawmakers for talking to Hamas and bombing Palestinian population centers.

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

Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, announced the deal on Monday after meeting Olmert.

"We are joining the government," Lieberman said.

Olmert said 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 sizable 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 centers.

More recently, he advocated trading Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements -- in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship. He has also called for the execution of Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the Islamic Hamas.

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.

Speaking to reporters on 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.

With Yisrael Beiteinu and its 11 seats in the coalition, Olmert now controls 78 of 120 seats in parliament.

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