Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded his coalition government, but the appointment of a hard-liner to a senior Cabinet post is drawing criticism, both at home and abroad.
Netanyahu signed the coalition deal in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, alongside his controversial new partner, ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beitenu party.
“I welcome Avigdor Lieberman and his faction members as important partners to the coalition,” Netanyahu said at the signing ceremony. “I value his experience. We’ve worked together before for the security and welfare of the people of Israel.”
Lieberman is one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli politics and takes a hard line against the Palestinians. He will serve as the new defense minister, playing an influential role in key policy decisions on security, war and peace.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that the addition of Lieberman might raise the stakes for a two-state solution, in which an independent Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel.
“This raises legitimate questions" about the direction that the Israeli government might be heading in, and "what kind of policies it will adopt. But ultimately, we're going to judge this government based on its actions,” he said.
Toner added that the U.S. remained committed to working with the Israeli government.
Netanyahu was eager to shore up his shaky coalition, which held just 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset — a majority of just one. With the addition of Lieberman’s party, his government now controls a somewhat stable 66 seats.
The deal ended a tumultuous week in Israeli politics, in which Netanyahu had courted the dovish Zionist Union party led by Yitzhak Herzog. Herzog hoped to push Netanyahu to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, which collapsed two years ago. But in the end, the right-wing Netanyahu opted for Lieberman, with whom he is more ideologically aligned.
Herzog accused Netanyahu of being “beholden to the most extremist elements” and warned that the alliance with Lieberman would lead to more violent conflict with the Palestinians and increase Israel’s international isolation.
The left-leaning Israeli press has been withering in its criticism, with the Hebrew daily Maariv describing it as the “most right-wing and most extremist government since the establishment of the state” in 1948.
A controversial figure
Lieberman is famous for inflammatory comments. He has threatened to assassinate leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and to topple the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Such statements have prompted critics to describe him as a “loose cannon,” a label that makes many people in Israel and abroad nervous when it comes to the sensitive post of defense minister.
Lieberman replaces Moshe Ya’alon, a former army chief praised across the political spectrum as an excellent defense minister who brought a moderating influence to the government. Lieberman, on the other hand, has no military experience.
FILE - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (l) during a visit to an army base near the Gush Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Nov. 23, 2015.
Israel fought a 50-day war in Gaza in 2014, and Hamas leaders there were defiant in the wake of Lieberman’s appointment. “We do not call for war, but we will fight if it is imposed on us,” Fathi Hammad, a former Hamas interior minister, said in a statement.
FILE - A Palestinian man reacts as rescue workers search for victims under the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2014.
The Islamic Jihad group in Gaza said the new coalition “points to growing fascism in Israel. … And the only suitable response is to continue the [Palestinian] resistance.”
Lieberman is also a strong supporter of expanding Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank and East Jerusalem, moves the international community describes as an “obstacle to peace.” In fact, Lieberman himself lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, south of Jerusalem.
FILE - An Israeli flag is seen near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a Sept. 7, 2009 photo.
At the signing ceremony, Netanyahu sought to play down concerns that Lieberman’s appointment could further stoke regional tensions.
“My government remains committed to pursuing peace with the Palestinians, pursuing peace with all our neighbors,” Netanyahu said in English, appealing to an international audience. “My policy has not changed. We will continue to pursue every avenue for peace, while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.”
But skepticism runs deep. In a statement, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Lieberman’s new leadership role “confirms the lack of a peace partner in Israel."
State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.