JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won cabinet approval on Monday for a far-right faction to join the government, a partnership likely to complicate any attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
The Yisrael Beitenu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, advocates annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and jurisdictional transfer of several Arab towns in Israel to the Palestinian Authority.
All but one cabinet member voted in favour of membership, Israel Radio said, after Olmert’s main coalition partner, the left-leaning Labour party led by Defence Minister Amir Peretz, decided on Sunday to remain in the government despite its differences with Lieberman.
The minister who voted against Lieberman and his party’s inclusion, Ofir Pines-Paz of the Labour party, announced his resignation from Olmert’s cabinet in a televised news conference and said he would stand for the leadership of his party.
“Despite the great difficulty and my desire to be a part of the decision-making circle, I cannot give up my conscience,” said Pines-Paz, who holds the science and technology, culture and sport portfolios. He said Liberman and other Yisrael Beitenu party members were “tainted through their racist and anti-democratic pronouncements.” His resignation will take effect 48 hours after he delivers his resignation letter to the cabinet.
Winning Lieberman’s support while keeping Labour at his side marked a reversal of fortunes for Olmert, whose popularity, along with Peretz’s, has plummeted in opinion polls since last summer’s indecisive war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
Yisrael Beitenu’s 11 legislators will give Olmert’s coalition control of 78 seats in the 120-member parliament — a particularly strong majority in Israeli politics. Parliament was set to approve the expanded government later in the day.
Olmert, speaking after the cabinet vote, said the government’s guidelines, which include seeking a peace settlement based on creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, would go unchanged. “I think it is vital we act in the diplomatic field … this includes, first and foremost, the Palestinians,” he said in broadcast remarks.
With prospects poor for a renewal of Middle East peace efforts any time soon, there appear to be few issues ahead that could divide the new Israeli alliance.
Olmert has wide backing at home, and from the United States, for his refusal to engage in any dialogue with a Palestinian government led by Hamas until the Islamist group recognises Israel and existing interim peace deals and renounces violence.
Nabil Shaath, a senior member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, called Lieberman “a dangerous creature” and said his inclusion in the cabinet was “an ugly symbol of the direction this Israeli government is taking”.
Shifting Israel’s public focus towards fears of a nuclear Iran, Olmert announced after the 34-day Lebanon war ended in August that the “realignment” plan on which his centrist Kadima party won election in March was no longer a pressing issue.
The proposal called for the dismantling of dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while strengthening others in the absence of peacemaking. Taking it off the agenda helped pave the way for Lieberman, himself a settler, to join the coalition.
Olmert has given Lieberman, who will be one of his deputy prime ministers, special responsibility for strategic issues, Israeli shorthand for Iran’s nuclear programme which Israel and the West fear Tehran will use to build atomic weapons.
The Islamic Republic, whose president has called for Israel’s destruction, says it is enriching uranium only to generate electricity.
Lieberman, a 48-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union who once worked as a night club bouncer, has served twice as a cabinet minister.