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Hawkish Party Included in Israel's Coalition Government

The Cabinet voted overwhelmingly Monday to bring into the government a hawkish party that opposes ceding territory to the Palestinians and wants to redraw Israel's borders to exclude many Israeli Arabs.

The vote, which still needs parliamentary approval, gives Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition a commanding majority in parliament. But the inclusion of the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party likely puts an end to Olmert's election campaign promise to pull out of much of the West Bank.

Weakened badly by last summer's war in Lebanon, Olmert agreed last week to bring in Yisrael Beiteinu to shore up his shaky coalition. The party's blunt-talking leader, Avigdor Lieberman, will be deputy prime minister in charge of "strategic threats," primarily how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The ministers voted 22-1 to accept Yisrael Beiteinu into the government. In a final stamp of approval, the full parliament was expected to follow suit in a vote later in the day.

With Yisrael Beiteinu's 11 lawmakers on board, Olmert is expanding his parliamentary majority to 78 of 120 seats, bringing some much-needed stability to a coalition riven by infighting after the Lebanon war.

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However, Olmert appears to have little interest in reviving his West Bank withdrawal plan, which was put on hold after the Lebanon war, and does not appear close to reviving long-stalled peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Olmert said Monday that Lieberman's presence in the government would not result in any policy changes.

"I think it is important that we act in the diplomatic arena," he told lawmakers in his Kadima party. "This includes the Palestinian issue first and foremost."

Israel has boycotted the Palestinian Authority since Hamas militants won legislative elections early this year and formed a Cabinet. Olmert has expressed willingness to talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate rival of Hamas, but the two sides have been unable to agree on even a limited agenda.

Olmert also said the government will focus on keeping the peace with Lebanon after last summer's monthlong war against Hezbollah guerrillas and blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions. Israel accuses Iran of trying to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Lieberman, 48, became a national figure a decade ago as a top aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A powerful behind-the-scenes mover, he became widely feared for his strong-arm tactics.

He has grown into a potent political force since then, thanks to the support of Israel's large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman, a former bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978.

His comments about Arabs have made him a divisive figure.

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 called for trading Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements — in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship — and executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the Palestinians' Hamas rulers, who are sworn to Israel's destruction.

His comments have drawn accusations of racism.

"Israel's No. 1 fascist has been upgraded to deputy prime minister and minister," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker. He said Lieberman's appointment was a message to the entire Arab world that "this government advocates rejectionism and the absence of a political process."

Despite earlier misgivings about Lieberman, Olmert's main coalition partner, the centrist Labor Party, decided Sunday to remain in the government, concluding it could serve as a counterweight to Lieberman more effectively inside the government than from the opposition.

Labor Cabinet minister Ophir Pines-Paz was the lone dissenter in Monday's vote.