Israel's Olmert Brings Hard-Liner into Coalition

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moves to expand his governing coalition, adding a right-wing party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a strong proponent of retaining the West Bank.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expanded his coalition government today by adding a far right party whose leader wants to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After all the criticism of the Olmert government for the war in Lebanon, the prime minister would undoubtedly like to make his coalition more secure. Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman and the 11 seats he brings with him do just that. They could also make the coalition far more hard line.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: The stocky Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer, is to become deputy prime minister and the cabinet minister in charge of strategic threats against Israel, meaning Iran and its suspect nuclear program. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel is our home, was one of the big surprises of the last election, winning 11 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and becoming Israel's fourth largest party. The 48-year-old Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, has made no secret of his hopes to be prime minister some day. But for now, he says, he's focusing on his new job.

Mr. AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN (Deputy Prime Minister, Israel): (Through translator) The number one problem that Israel is facing today is the Iranian threat and the axis of evil surrounding the entire Iranian issue. Words are not enough. We must take action.

GRADSTEIN: The expansion of the ruling coalition comes as the popularity of both Olmert and his Kadima Party is at its lowest ebb. Many Israelis blame the government for what they see as the failure of this summer's war against Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. Leah Zinder(ph), a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Television, describes Lieberman's entry into the government as a coup for Olmert.

Ms. LEAH ZINDER (Diplomatic Correspondent, Israel Television): Just weeks ago, he was considered one of the weakest prime ministers of all time. Labor, his main coalition ally, was and is in shambles. Some of Olmert's Kadima ministers were even checking the possibility of returning to the Likud. Now, with Yisrael Beiteinu at his side, Olmert will command a rock solid majority of 78 seats in the Knesset. That's two thirds of the Knesset members.

GRADSTEIN: Zinder says the center left Labor Party isn't very happy about Lieberman's joining the government, but is unlikely to quit. Also unhappy are Israeli Arabs, many of whom see Lieberman as a racist. His hard line party has proposed the transfer of some of Israel's Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state and annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel. Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi says he's disappointed in Olmert's decision.

Mr. AHMED TIBI (Israeli-Arab Knesset): (Through translator) Olmert is saying that he is promoting someone who wants to transfer us, whose platform is racist and fascist. Instead of exiling him, Olmert is bringing him from the street into the government.

GRADSTEIN: Many Israeli analysts say Lieberman's addition to the coalition makes a future peace deal with the Palestinians almost impossible.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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