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Israel's Netanyahu adds hard-liner to coalition

The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman comes as the international community closely watches Israel's apparent right-wing tilt.

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looks on during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, May 23, 2016. Israel's leader on Monday reiterated his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, seeking to persuade critics that he remains committed to peace as he prepares to bring a polarizing hardliner into his Cabinet.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named one of Israel's most polarizing politicians as defense minister on Wednesday, solidifying his parliamentary majority at the risk of antagonizing the international community and his own military — and clouding already slim hopes for a resumption of peace efforts.

The addition of Avigdor Lieberman to the Cabinet comes at a sensitive time. After a two-year breakdown in talks, France is preparing to host a conference next month aimed at restarting negotiations. At the same time, the U.S.-led quartet of international peace mediators is set to release a report expected to be critical of Israel.

While both Netanyahu and Lieberman pledged to pursue peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, their tough positions on key issues, strained relationship with much of the international community and the makeup of the rest of the Cabinet would seem to make significant progress a long shot.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed concerns with Israel's right-wing tilt.

"This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be heading in and what kind of policies it may adopt," Toner told reporters.

One of Israel's most divisive leaders, Lieberman, 57, is known for a sharp tongue that has offended allies and opponents at home and abroad.

He entered politics in the 1990s as an aide to Netanyahu before breaking away and founding Yisrael Beitenu, an ultranationalist party that relies on immigrants from the former Soviet Union as its base of support. Lieberman himself was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova and speaks Hebrew with a strong Russian accent.

Over the years, he has been both a key ally and strong rival of Netanyahu's, holding a series of high-level Cabinet posts, including serving twice as Netanyahu's foreign minister. With the addition of Yisrael Beitenu's five seats, Netanyahu now holds a comfortable 66 to 54 majority in parliament, bringing some much needed stability to what had been a shaky coalition.

But Netanyahu's Cabinet is now dominated by religious and nationalist hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence — a key goal of the international community and the U.S.-led peace process. Lieberman himself is a West Bank settler.

An outspoken skeptic of peace efforts with the Palestinians, Lieberman delivered a speech at the United Nations in 2010 that cast doubt on the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Instead, he talked of a decades-long intermediate period and proposed shifting regional borders to rid Israel of its Arab citizens and incorporate West Bank settlements into Israel.

Netanyahu distanced himself from the speech, saying it did not reflect Israeli policy.

When the Palestinians sought upgraded membership at the U.N. in 2012, Lieberman called for toppling President Mahmoud Abbas.

Just a few weeks ago, he suggested that a top Hamas leader in Gaza be killed if the Islamic militant group doesn't return the remains of two Israeli soldiers it is holding. And during a 2014 war against Gaza militants, Lieberman favored much harsher military action.

Wednesday's coalition agreement proposes changes in Israeli military law that could pave the way for executions of convicted terrorists. Israel has a death penalty for certain cases, but it has never been enforced. The new changes, which would require a parliamentary vote, could make it easier to apply the law.

Addressing concerns about their alliance, both Netanyahu and Lieberman voiced messages of moderation Wednesday.

Netanyahu vowed to "pursue every avenue for peace," while Lieberman promised a "reasonable policy."

"All of us have commitments to peace, to the final status agreement, to understanding between us and our neighbors," Lieberman said, speaking in English in a message aimed at the international community.

The last round of peace talks broke down two years ago due to wide gaps between the sides.

Although Netanyahu has called for a return to negotiations, his refusal to endorse the internationally backed contours of a peace agreement — and continued construction of settlements on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians — have fueled widespread doubts about his intentions, and the Palestinians say there is no point in talking.

The make-up of his expanded coalition appears to make it even more unlikely that Netanyahu will make significant concessions to the Palestinians.

"Adding Lieberman to the government ... threatens to destroy the two-state solution," warned Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. "The result will be religious and political extremism, and violence and terrorism and bloodshed."

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, a moderate who last week had been in talks to join the government, said Netanyahu has become a "hostage" to the hard-line Israeli right wing. He called Wednesday's appointment "a day of sorrow."

In addition to the Palestinians, Lieberman has also managed to alienate Israel's own Arab minority, many of whom identify with their Palestinian brethren.

He led a failed attempt to require Arabs to take a loyalty oath, and once said that Arab lawmakers who meet with members of the anti-Israel Hamas group should be executed.

"Lieberman is a fascist similar to the fascists from the '30s of the last century," said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab bloc in parliament. "He is inciting against the Arab citizens."

While Lieberman has been a member of the sensitive inner Security Cabinet, he has limited military experience. The parliament's website says he only reached the low rank of corporal, and he reportedly had only a brief career working in an army warehouse.

Set to be sworn in next week, he will help oversee military policy and handle delicate security matters with international allies.

He has angered neighboring Egypt with comments in the past, including a suggestion that Israel bomb Egypt's Aswan Dam. In another moment of anger, he said Egypt's then-president Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell."

Egyptian leaders have not forgotten those comments, and it remains unclear whether the appointment will affect relations. Israel and Egypt work closely together in a joint battle against Islamic militants.

But Lieberman's biggest troubles could come at home with the army. The Israeli military tends to be more pragmatic and moderate than hard-line politicians like Lieberman, and it's unclear how they will respond if he issues an order that the generals disagree with.

Lieberman replaces Moshe Yaalon, a decorated former military chief of staff who had warm relations with the army command.

Yaalon was forced out after siding with his commanders in a series of disagreements with political hard-liners.

In March, for example, he backed military leaders who had criticized a soldier who was caught on video fatally shooting an already-wounded Palestinian attacker in the head. The soldier is now on trial for manslaughter,

Lieberman went to the court to offer his support for the soldier.

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Lieberman is more pragmatic than commonly thought but also is unpredictable and problematic for Netanyahu.

"There is a matter of style. There is a matter of image in the world, which is, I think, not very positive to say the least," he said.

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