JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bid for political survival, struck an alliance yesterday with a hard-liner who has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship, executing lawmakers for talking to Hamas, and bombing Palestinian population centers.
Taking the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government would shore up Olmert's coalition, weakened badly by the war with Hezbollah, but probably ends any hope for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, announced the deal yesterday after meeting Olmert. "We are joining the government," the smiling Lieberman said.
Olmert said as deputy prime minister, Lieberman would be responsible for "strategic threats," such as Iran's nuclear ambitions. His appointment must be approved by parliament, a step seen as a formality.
Lieberman, 48, entered the political stage a decade ago as a top aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He quickly gained a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes mover. Critics accused him of strong-arm tactics.
He has grown into a potent political force, in large part because of his popularity with Israel's sizable community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman, a former bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978.
Lieberman's comments about Arabs have made him one of Israel's most divisive figures.
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 advocated trading Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements -- in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship -- and called for the execution of Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of Hamas, which is running the Palestinian government. Such positions have drawn accusations of racism.
But with his coalition weakened by harsh criticism of this summer's war, Olmert had little choice but to look past Lieberman's liabilities. Yesterday, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, dismissed Lieberman's past stances as rhetoric.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Lieberman questioned the wisdom of past peace deals in which Israel ceded captured land to Arab adversaries. "Maybe we should ask if we should go in a different direction," he said.
Dovish Israelis were enraged. Yossi Beilin, leader of the Meretz Party, accused Olmert of "defrauding voters" by striking a deal with Lieberman. Olmert was elected this year on a platform of a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank, but he shelved the plan in the aftermath of the war against Hezbollah. Lieberman quit a previous government over his rejection of Israel's pullout from Gaza last year.
With Yisrael Beiteinu and its 11 seats in the coalition, Olmert now controls 78 of 120 seats in parliament, guaranteeing success in crucial parliamentary votes.
"A government must have a stable majority, and we must set the rules for securing this, and a wide political base that would shield it," Olmert said.
Saeb Erekat, a confidant of the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, termed the development an internal Israeli affair. "At the end of the day, what we hoped for is to have a partner in Israel who is willing to revive a meaningful peace process that will end this miserable situation between our two peoples," Erekat said.
Olmert said the inclusion of Lieberman in the government would not result in any policy changes. However, many moderate Israelis expressed concern that Lieberman will have a say in sensitive matters, such as Israel's dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran.
"He's bringing an unguided missile, a loose cannon, into his government," said analyst Yossi Alpher. "This says something very worrisome to me about Olmert's way of handing out security portfolios."
One of the prices for Lieberman's inclusion was the Cabinet's narrow endorsement Sunday of a proposal to replace Israel's parliamentary rule with a US-style system.
The proposal would include direct election of the prime minister and granting him broader powers. It also would raise the bar for parliamentary representation so high that smaller parties -- such as those representing Israeli Arabs -- would be hard-pressed to win seats. The ceremonial presidency would be eliminated.
Olmert agreed to support Cabinet endorsement of the proposal to appease Lieberman, but said yesterday he would not vote for it in parliament. It is not expected to win parliamentary approval, in part because of misgivings about Lieberman.