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Israel moves rightwards as Lieberman joins Netanyahu coalition

Hardline nationalist handed key post of defence minister in deal described by one former prime minister as 'infected by shoots of fascism'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his new defence minister (left), Avigdor Lieberman (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a deal with a hardline nationalist party to join his government, negotiators said on Wednesday, forming what is being called the most right-wing government in the nation's history.

Under the agreement, Avigdor Lieberman was appointed defence minister and his Yisrael Beitenu party joins Netanyahu's coalition, adding five parliamentarians to his previously wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

Lieberman, who has spoken of harsh measures against Palestinian "terrorists," promised to adopt a "balanced policy" as the deal was announced in a ceremony at the Knesset,

Netanyahu said: "We are joining hands now to march Israel forward."

Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian peace negotiator, said the new Israeli government would result in "apartheid, racism and religious and political extremism" and posed a threat to stability in the region.

The move to hand the defence ministry to Lieberman also sparked concern among Israeli centrist and left-wing politicians, as well as among some of Netanyahu's Likud colleagues.

Religious nationalists from the Jewish Home party already hold key cabinet positions in Netanyahu's government.

Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member who resigned as defence minister on Friday and who has also served as armed forces chief, warned of a rising tide of extremism in his party and the country as a whole.

Former Labor prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak went even further, saying Israel's government had "been infected by the shoots of fascism".

But others say that Lieberman is above all a pragmatic politician who aspires to be prime minister one day, noting also that he will face opposition from the security establishment if he seeks to carry out some of his most controversial ideas.

Military 'a moderating voice'

Yonatan Mendel, the head of Manarat at the Van Leer Center for Jewish-Arab Relations in Jerusalem, told Middle East Eye that while Lieberman was "an extreme person with very strong views", his move into government did not represent a huge shift from the current general policies.

“The new thing that is happening here, which is most troubling, is the new place of the Israeli military and security establishment; it is not anti-Israeli or supportive of the Palestinian cause but over the past six months we have seen over and over again the military and security establishment serving as a moderating voice," Mendel said.

He noted that when the Israeli government outlawed the Islamic Movement it had been Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, which had opposed the move, and that it had been the head of the army who had spoken out most vocally against a soldier who shot dead an injured Palestinian in Hebron in March.

"We are likely to see the beginning of the end of this role of the military establishment as the moderator of what is a very extreme society, because with Lieberman as head of the security establishment I fear his fear will trickle down," he said.

“This means that the next time a killing of a Palestinian by a soldier is recorded [on camera], the security will not likely open an investigation. This is the real slippery slope down which we are headed.”

Mendel's concerns echoed those raised by Israeli writer Meron Rapoport in a column for MEE published prior to Lieberman's confirmation as defence minister in which Rapoport suggested that his appointment amounted to a "civilian coup" against the army.

An example of Lieberman's provocative style was recently on display in comments directed at Ismail Haniya, Islamist movement Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman said he would give Haniya 48 hours to hand over two detained Israeli civilians and the bodies of soldiers killed in a 2014 war "or you're dead".

Former nightclub bouncer

In 2001, the former nightclub bouncer advocated bombing the Aswan Dam in Egypt, accusing Israel's Arab neighbour of supporting a Palestinian uprising.

The deal brings to a stunning conclusion weeks of speculation over Netanyahu's efforts to expand his government, which has held only 61 of the 120 seats in parliament since elections in March 2015.

Netanyahu had earlier engaged in negotiations with Labor party leader Isaac Herzog to join the government, before turning to Lieberman.

Besides Lieberman becoming defence minister and another member of his party becoming immigrant absorption minister, the government agreed to allocate about 1.4bn shekels ($363m) to fund the pensions of elderly Israelis.

Lieberman, born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, sought the arrangement to benefit immigrants from the former Soviet Union, his main electoral support base.

"These are the two major issues that are important to our constituency, and significant achievements," Lieberman's spokesman told AFP.

Lieberman had also pushed for the government to institute the death penalty for Palestinian "terrorists," but backed away from the demand during talks.

A watered-down version is thought to have been agreed upon that analysts say is unlikely to significantly change current policy. There have been no executions in Israel since 1962.

Netanyahu sought to ease fears over the appointment of Lieberman - who previously called for "disloyal" Palestinians to be beheaded - saying he will continue to seek peace with the Palestinians and oversee the defence ministry's policies, which include control over the occupied West Bank.

Negotiations with the Palestinians have been at a complete standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed in April 2014.