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Israel set to form 'most right-wing government in history'

Yisrael Beitenu would give Israeli prime minister an extra five seats on his wafer-thin, one-seat majority in the Knesset
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (R) in the 2012 elections (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set to move one of Israel's most right-wing governments even further right on Thursday, with Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister loathed by Palestinians, expected to join as defence minister.

Netanyahu's allies were set for fresh negotiations with representatives of Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beitenu party to try to entice it to join the governing coalition and boost its wafer-thin, one-seat majority in parliament.

Leaks to the Israeli media from both sides on Thursday said a deal was close to being finalised.

Yisrael Beitenu held six of the 120 places in parliament, but following news of the coalition deal, MP Orly Levi-Abekasis said on Facebook that she was quitting the party but would retain her Knesset seat, to work on social-economic issues "according to the dictates of my conscience".

Even with five seats, Yisrael Beitenu's entry into government would be a major boost for Netanyahu, who has not concealed his ambition to expand on the coalition's current 61 seats and consolidate his power.

Lieberman served as foreign minister under Netanyahu from 2009 to 2012 and again from 2013 to 2015, although he then refused to join the current coalition government. His return to a ministerial role will raise international concern about his government's policies - especially on the conflict with the Palestinians.

As defence minister, Lieberman - who lives in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank - would oversee military operations in the Palestinian territories and have a major say in policy towards the settlements.

The international community considers the persistent expansion of illegal settlements by successive Netanyahu governments as one of the biggest obstacles to peace.

Since its formation in May 2015, Lieberman had repeatedly branded the current five-party coalition as "defeatist" but on Wednesday he told a news conference that he would be open to joining it if key demands were met.

He said one demand was the death penalty for perpetrators of anti-Israeli attacks and hinted that Netanyahu's government could accede to that demand.

Israeli analysts have also stressed that Lieberman could take aim at the armed forces, which have increasingly locked horns with Israel’s increasingly right-wing administrations.

Lieberman has long expressed mistrust in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and has called for his removal.

Just a month ago, he said that if he were defence minister, he would give Hamas's Gaza leader Ismail Haniya 48 hours to hand over two detained Israeli civilians who crossed into Gaza of their own accord as well as the bodies of soldiers killed in the 2014 war "or you're dead".

The Palestinians said they would wait for confirmation of Lieberman's appointment before making a formal response, but one official said it would be a "disaster" for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

"He will be in charge of the occupation and it will be a disaster. He is a populist - either he talks too much or he puts his words into action," the official said.

He said such was the dislike of Lieberman that he was a "unifying factor for Palestinians".

11th hour surprise

Lieberman's looming return to government comes after weeks of frantic negotiations, not just with his party but also with the centre left Zionist Union camp.

Netanyahu had been widely expected to make a deal with the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, whom he had been in secret talks with for months.  

Herzog was tipped for the position of foreign minister ahead of a French-led push for renewed peace talks this summer.

But Netanyahu's 11th-hour tilt to the far right appeared to have torpedoed those hopes and also left the opposition in disarray as Herzog came under attack from the party rank and file for even considering serving under Netanyahu.

The centrist Yediot Aharonot newspaper criticised Netanyahu's about-turn, accusing him of being self-serving.

"Instead of presenting to the world, in advance of the serious diplomatic challenges that lie ahead of us in the autumn, a more moderate government, Netanyahu is presenting to the world the most extreme government ever to have served here," it said.

The right-wing Maariv newspaper agreed that Israel was about to get the "most right-wing and most extremist government since the founding of the state".

"But the main thing is that Netanyahu remains safe and confident," it added.

Lieberman's appointment to the defence ministry in place of former armed forces chief of staff Moshe Yaalon is also likely to raise the hackles of senior commanders.

Yaalon has been at loggerheads with Netanyahu over his insistence that senior officers be encouraged to "speak their mind".