Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land should be separated, said Israel's newest Cabinet minister, setting off a wave of criticism of the hardliner who is in charge of dealing with strategic threats.
Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman's statements on Sunday fanned fears that his inclusion in the government would make it nearly impossible to renew stalled peace efforts and could damage already shaky relations between Israel and its Arab citizens.
Lieberman's fellow ministers, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, quickly distanced themselves from his remarks, and critics said his comments amounted to a call for ethnic cleansing.
In a lengthy interview with Israel's Army Radio, Lieberman said there was no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, so separating the two peoples was the best solution.
He repeated his assertion that Israel should give Israeli Arab villages near the West Bank to the Palestinians -- stripping many of the residents of their citizenship in the process -- in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"The answer is exchanges of land and populations and making a homogeneous, Jewish country as much as possible," said Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement.
Under Lieberman's proposal, Arabs permitted to remain in Israel would have to pass a loyalty test to keep their citizenship.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker, said Lieberman's comments were "a call to ethnic cleansing."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also condemned Lieberman's words.
"What Israel needs is not more racist decisions," he said. "What Israel needs is exactly what the Palestinians need for the future of security and peace, and that is two states living side by side."
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