Wednesday 28 September 2016

Israel's PM chooses hardliner as ally in government

Aron Heller

Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30

Avigdor Lieberman: nationalist (AP)
Avigdor Lieberman: nationalist (AP)

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a deal to expand his coalition government by bringing in the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and appointing its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as his new defence minister.

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The development caps a tumultuous political week that began with Mr Netanyahu negotiating with the moderate Labour Party, against a backdrop of international pressure to relaunch peace efforts with the Palestinians, before choosing Mr Lieberman's hawkish party instead.

Mr Lieberman is one of Israel's most polarising politicians and has a reputation for making inflammatory statements.

In a joint signing ceremony in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman insisted that they have put their past differences behind them and sought to soothe fears over their new alliance by making calming statements in both Hebrew and, with an eye towards the outside world, in English as well.

"I am committed to promoting the peace process. I am committed to make every effort to reach an agreement," Mr Netanyahu said, adding: "I intend to seize those opportunities. A broader government, a more stable government will make it easier to do so."

With the deal, Mr Netanyahu expands his coalition to 66 of parliament's 120 members. He previously only had 61.

Mr Netanyahu also made another feeble plea for Labour to join his government but this will almost certainly be rejected.

Mr Lieberman will take over as defence chief in place of former military chief Moshe Yaalon, who resigned earlier this week following the political shake-up.

His departure leaves the cabinet dominated by religious and ultra-nationalist ministers who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state and have close ties to the West Bank settler movement. Mr Lieberman himself is a West Bank settler.

In a three-decade political career, Mr Lieberman has made headlines for a series of incendiary comments. At one point, he called for bombing Egypt's Aswan Dam and suggested toppling the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Just a few weeks ago, he threatened to kill a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.

He has repeatedly voiced scepticism about pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Those close to Mr Lieberman, though, say he is far more pragmatic and level-headed in person than he appears in public and he seemed to be trying to convey that yesterday.

"My commitment first of all is to responsible, reasonable policy," Mr Lieberman said in English. "All of us have commitments to peace, to the final status agreement, to understanding between us and our neighbours."

Irish Independent

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