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Lieberman nod to Netanyahu tips Israel right

The controversial leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday, virtually ensuring that a right-wing coalition will govern the country.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2009

Kingmaker: Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Israeli prime minister Thursday.

Ronen Zvulun/AP

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Long disparaged as the bad boy of Israeli politics, Avigdor Lieberman has leveraged a racially divisive campaign assailing the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority to become the kingmaker of the next government.

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On Thursday, Mr. Lieberman, who is leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, or "Israel Is Our Home" party, formally threw his support behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, nearly clinching his chances to lead a right-wing coalition. In return, Lieberman is seen as a candidate for one of three top cabinet posts: finance, defense, or foreign affairs.

Now, as the controversial politician prepares to shape Israeli policy, many are concerned that he could put Israel at odds with the United States and the international community.

Lieberman is relying on a career diplomat to help avoid such tensions.

"It's a challenge, there are a lot of misconceptions," said Danny Ayalon, a newly elected member of parliament for Lieberman's "Israel is our Home" party and a former ambassador to the US.

Mr. Ayalon predicts that international diplomats will give Lieberman a hearing despite all the criticism. "There is a recognition that Avigdor Lieberman is going to play a central role here, not just in Israeli politics but in Israeli foreign policy."

Following Lieberman's recommendation of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she plans to take the centrist Kadima party into the opposition rather than accept offers to join Netanyahu in a unity government.

Ayalon's most difficult task may be explaining domestic proposals that have earned Lieberman comparisons to far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Moldovan-born immigrant says that Israel's Arab minorities – one-fifth of the population – threaten to destabilize the Jewish state, just as ethno-religious conflicts sowed turmoil in the Balkans. The problem is even more acute in Israel, because it sits at the "clash of civilizations" divide between the West and radical Islam.

The "Israel is Our Home" party advocates passing a law requiring Israeli citizens – including some 1.4 million Arabs – to swear loyalty to the country's Jewish symbols or lose voting rights. As part of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel should redraw its border with the West Bank to cede hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian entity in return for sovereignty over Jewish settlements.

Ayalon insists that Lieberman is a pragmatist who has been unfairly attacked campaign of "name calling." Once a part of the government, the hardball rhetoric of the opposition will ease, he predicts.

Some says it's too late. After his party's recent campaign slogan of "no loyalty, no citizenship," Lieberman would be disastrous choice, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

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