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Olmert’s New Coalition Partner: A Step Forward or Back?

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It was an unlikely, even desperate courtship, born of one partner’s need and an opportunity for the other. But despite the warnings and protests of skeptics, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has drawn radical right-winger Avigdor Lieberman into his coalition cabinet.

Questions over how long such an alliance could survive and how badly it would alienate Olmert’s other coalition partners have dominated the media here for weeks. After all, Olmert’s government is built on the premise of partially withdrawing settlers from territories in the West Bank, while Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party is better known for advocating a policy of revoking the citizenship of Israel’s Arab minority. Still, despite the many risks, there are also potential gains for the beleaguered Prime Minister. Having failed to score a decisive victory over Hizballah and with the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza having frozen his West Bank withdrawal plan (and, it was reported Tuesday, now facing investigation by Israel’s State Prosecutor into allegations of wrongdoing in the course of the state’s sale of its controlling interest in a major bank in 2005), Olmert needs help. Lieberman brings with him 11 seats in the Knesset, along with the party’s constituency, a large bloc of the roughly 1 million immigrants from former Soviet republics now living in Israel. (Lieberman himself was born in Moldova.) That raises the Olmert coalition’s majority to 78 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, compensating, perhaps, for a steep postwar decline in his public support, and girding him for the traditionally tempestuous forthcoming budget debates, which have been known to bring down governments. In return, Lieberman gets the title of Deputy Prime Minister and a portfolio that includes keeping an eye on “strategic threats” such as Iran.

Olmert wooed Lieberman in part to preempt the Yisrael Beiteinu leader from coupling with his one-time mentor and leader of the Likud opposition, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. While the move maintains the primacy of Olmert’s Kadima party, some questioned how a Prime Minister already under fire for his management of the Hizballah war could hand Lieberman, who has no military or intelligence background, a position that carries at least some responsibility for watching Iran, which many Israeli leaders identify as their country’s greatest threat.

Nor is Lieberman easily placated. He is one of the most controversial players on the Israeli political scene, a self-styled populist who, after breaking with Netanyahu in the late 1990s, delighted in blasting the Israeli political establishment. He is a former nightclub bouncer turned politician and businessman whose business dealings have been investigated at length by the Israeli police, although no charges have been filed. His plan to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs and swap the land on which they live for the land on which West Bank settlements are built in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish ethnic majority has been deonounced as “ethnic cleansing.” In the past, he has suggested bombing banks, gas stations and populated areas of the Palestinian territories, and he said earlier this year that Arab members of the Knesset who had contact with Hamas should be executed.

Hardly surprisingly, Lieberman’s arrival has forced Olmert’s senior coalition partner, the equally embattled Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, to reexamine its own position. A split has already developed between members who want to withdraw their 19 Knesset seats from Olmert’s government — Arab members are particularly appalled by their new coalition mates — and those who think it best to stay. Labor will decide its course on Sunday, but the Lieberman dilemma has simply highlighted the sense that the party no longer knows where it stands. Israel’s campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, and the increasingly chaotic infighting among Palestinian factions, have dashed hopes that former peacenik Peretz could push the government toward a negotiated peace. Indeed, the common feature in Israeli and Palestinian politics is a crisis of leadership, which does not bode well for the prospects of progress.

Olmert’s challenge, now that he has Lieberman at his side, is to prove that his government has a purpose beyond remaining in power. But the breadth of the coalition he has created — if it holds together — may well lengthen the odds against his being able to move forward in any direction.

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