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New Cabinet Appointment Tilts Israel to Right

Israel's cabinet is expected to approve the appointment of a far-right politician to a cabinet portfolio on Wednesday. The political development seems certain to move the Israeli government further away from granting territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

One of the most controversial Israeli politicians in Israel's parliament or Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman, will now report directly to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his new cabinet position as Minister for Strategic Threats.

Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beitenu Party that is made up largely of Russian immigrants, controls 11 seats in the Knesset. He agreed to join Mr. Olmert's coalition on Monday, saying he wants to help it deal with what he describes as Israel's primary threat: Iran.

Lieberman's party advocates annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship by transferring Israeli-Arab towns to the Palestinian territories. About 20 percent of Israel's population is Arab.

Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet is expected to be approved by Israel's Knesset in a matter of days. The appointment significantly strengthens Mr. Olmert's coalition government, which has been heavily criticized for its conduct of the 34-day conflict in Lebanon this summer and, according to the polls, has lost significant support among Israel's public.

A senior researcher at Tel Aviv University, Joshua Teitelbaum, says Lieberman's appointment to the government means that Prime Minister Olmert's plan to withdraw from a number of West Bank settlements and demarcate Israel's border with the Palestinians is unlikely to happen during his term in office.

"Well it is probably the final nail in the coffin. The nail began to be put in the coffin with the Lebanon war really and what happened in Gaza with the capture of and kidnapping of the Israeli soldier," he said. "This really puts an end to it."

With Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party joining the government, Prime Minister Olmert now has an overwhelming parliamentary majority of 78 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The political move is being criticized by Mr. Olmert's main coalition partner, the leftist Labor Party, which supports granting territorial concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for a lasting peace agreement. But Labor Party leaders say they have no plans to leave the coalition over the appointment.

Mr. Olmert's government is now made up of parties from the left to right.

Joshua Teitelbaum of Tel Aviv University says with such a broad coalition, it is unclear what the government stands for.

"What is the agenda of this new government then? Is it going to be a social agenda, which is what they were all elected on, or is it going to be a defense-oriented agenda with Iran as the main focus and then what does one do. Those are still open questions," he said.

One group of lawmakers not in Mr. Olmert's coalition - Arab members of the Knesset - are harshly criticizing Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet. One Arab lawmaker called the appointment a "move against democracy that legitimizes racist discourse."

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the move an internal Israeli affair, saying Palestinians are still committed a meaningful peace process with Israel.