JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked his combative foreign minister on Tuesday for attacking members of the Israeli leader's Likud party, pointing to growing strains within the coalition government.
In a rambling news conference, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Likud leaders for opposing an initiative to investigate Israeli human rights groups critical of the government. He said it was a "strange spectacle" to see Likud members protecting groups that he described as "terrorist collaborators."
Netanyahu's office said the prime minister "utterly rejects" the comments, reminding Lieberman that Likud is a "democratic and pluralistic party and not a dictatorship of one opinion."
Lieberman leads the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu Party, dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union like Lieberman himself. It made strong gains in 2009 elections with a nationalist message that, among other things, questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority.
Lieberman more recently has turned his attention to Israeli human rights groups, pushing parliament to launch an inquiry into funding sources of organizations deemed hostile to Israel. In particular, he is targeting groups that have helped seek prosecution of Israeli soldiers for alleged war crimes during battles against Palestinian militants.
Critics say Lieberman's proposal would stifle dissent and limit democracy. Several senior Likud members reject the move, saying it is not the parliament's job to impede public debate.
Tuesday's comments were not the first time Netanyahu has had to publicly rein in his outspoken foreign minister.
Lieberman has embarrassed Netanyahu by repeatedly expressing skepticism over the chances of reaching peace with the Palestinians, including a high-profile speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September in which he contradicted a goal set by President Barack Obama of reaching a final peace deal in the coming year.
Lieberman has also proved a distraction with his repeated attacks on Arab lawmakers, and by promoting a bill that would require non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath before becoming citizens. That proposal was widely seen as racist and anti-Arab because it would not require Jewish immigrants to take the oath. Netanyahu later softened it by including all immigrants.
Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, questioned the logic of Lieberman's stand during a speech Tuesday.
"What hinders Israel's right to defend itself more?" she asked, "those same organizations or the way Israel is presented today by this belligerent government ... that speaks loudly but at the end of the day makes Israel weaker?"
In other challenges facing the government, the centrist Labor Party last week threatened to pull out of the government within two months if no significant progress is made in peace talks with Palestinians.
On Tuesday, Labor lawmaker Daniel Ben Simon said he was leaving the party and becoming an independent in parliament. He said the step was to protest Labor's continued presence in a coalition that includes Lieberman's party.