Wed, Nov 01, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Israeli government moves to the right

FIREBRAND Hardliner Avigdor Lieberman joined the governing coalition as minister for strategic affairs, a move which prompted one Cabinet member to quit his post

AFP , JERUSALEM

Israel's ultra-nationalist party leader Avigdor Lieberman was sworn into government on Monday, marking a sharp shift to the right in the state's leadership.

The 48-year-old firebrand and leader of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party was sworn in after the parliament chamber voted 61 to 38 to approve him joining the governing coalition as the nation's first-ever minister for strategic affairs.

Earlier in the day, Cabinet ministers voted 22 to one on welcoming Lieberman into the government, where he will also hold the fourth deputy premier post and will coordinate efforts to counter Iran's nuclear program.

"We are taking an important step to strengthen the government," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose own popularity ratings have slumped in recent months, said after the Cabinet vote.

Olmert reached out to Lieberman to shore up his support base in parliament, with his previously 67-member coalition weakened by this summer's war in Lebanon and a series of damaging scandals.

The addition of Yisrael Beitenu's 11 MPs gives Olmert's coalition 78 seats and a comfortable majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Israeli Culture Minister Ophir Pines-Paz from Labor, the only minister to oppose Lieberman's joining, announced his resignation hours after the Cabinet vote.

"From the moment the Israeli government decided to join ranks with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu, which hold a platform with racist appearance ... I had no alternative but to stick to my position," he told a news conference.

The arrival of 48-year-old Lieberman in the government marks a turn to the right for a Cabinet that took office only in May on a linchpin of Olmert's centrist Kadima party and its main coalition partner, the centre-left Labor.

In concessions to Labor, the Cabinet also voted unanimously to make party MP Ephraim Sneh deputy defense minister, and Labor leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz head of a special government committee for minorities in Israel.

Olmert later praised Peretz's "strong resolve" in winning his party's backing for the move on Sunday after an impassioned debate about Lieberman, whose ideas are anathema to the country's oldest liberal party.

"I'm happy for [Lieberman's] joining and appreciate Labor's position ... This was not the most natural step for them," he said.

Rampant political differences, particularly between Labour and Lieberman, could signal stormy times ahead.

Labor minister without portfolio Eitan Cabel said that the coalition did not mean the government will be better able to carry out its policies "because there is no unity among ministers."

Seen by his supporters as a desperately needed strong hand and by his foes as a racist demagogue, Lieberman was previously infrastructure and transport minister in 2001-2002 and 2003-2004, and is today the rising star of the right.

Lieberman has called for the transfer of land and populations to create homogenous Jewish and Palestinian states, and for the execution of Israeli Arab MPs who have had dealings with the ruling Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, which Israel considers a terrorist organization.

Israeli Arab MP Ahmed Tibi immediately blasted Lieberman's entry into power.

"This is a black day for Israel. Olmert and Peretz are sending a message to the Arab minority that someone who calls for your expulsion is being promoted to a deputy prime minister," he said.

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