Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bid for political survival, struck an alliance Monday with a hard-liner who has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship, executing lawmakers for talking to Hamas and bombing Palestinian population centers.
Taking the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government would shore up Olmert's coalition, weakened badly by the war with Hezbollah, but probably ends any hope for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, announced the deal Monday after meeting Olmert. "We are joining the government," the smiling Lieberman said.
Olmert said as deputy prime minister, Lieberman would be responsible for "strategic threats," such as Iran's nuclear ambitions. His appointment must be approved by parliament, a step seen as a formality.
Lieberman, 48, entered the political stage a decade ago as a top aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He quickly gained a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes mover widely detested for his strong-arm tactics.
He has grown into a potent political force, in large part because of his popularity with Israel's sizable community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman, a former bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978 and still speaks with a Russian accent.
Lieberman's comments about Arabs have made him one of Israel's most divisive figures.
At the height of fighting against Palestinians in 2002, Lieberman, then a Cabinet minister, called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centers.
More recently, he advocated trading Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements - in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship - and called for the execution of Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of Hamas, which is running the Palestinian government. Such positions have drawn accusations of racism.
But with his coalition weakened by harsh criticism of this summer's war, Olmert had little choice but to look past Lieberman's liabilities. On Monday, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, dismissed Lieberman's past positions as rhetoric.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Lieberman questioned the wisdom of past peace deals where Israel ceded captured land to Arab adversaries. "Maybe we should ask if we should go in a different direction," he said.
Dovish Israelis were enraged. Yossi Beilin, leader of the Meretz Party, accused Olmert of "defrauding voters" by striking a deal with Lieberman. Olmert was elected this year on a platform of a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank, but he shelved the plan in the aftermath of the war against Hezbollah. Lieberman quit a previous government over his rejection of Israel's pullout from Gaza last year.
With Yisrael Beiteinu and its 11 seats in the coalition, Olmert now controls 78 of 120 seats in parliament, guaranteeing success in crucial parliamentary votes.