JERUSALEM -- Israel's new deputy prime minister called for a near-total separation between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land yesterday, sparking a wave of condemnation less than a week after the far-right politician joined the Cabinet.
Avigdor Lieberman's statements fanned fears that his inclusion in the government would make it nearly impossible to renew stalled peace efforts with the Palestinians and could damage shaky relations between Israel and its Arab citizens.
Lieberman's fellow ministers, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, quickly distanced themselves from his remarks. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker, said the comments amounted to "a call to ethnic cleansing."
In an interview with Israel's Army Radio, Lieberman said there was no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, so physically separating them was the best solution.
He said Israel should give Israeli Arab villages near the West Bank to the Palestinians -- stripping many of the residents of their citizenship in the process -- in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Arabs remaining in Israel would be allowed to keep their citizenship if they passed a loyalty test. Arabs make up roughly one-fifth of Israel's population.
"The answer is exchanges of land and populations and making a homogeneous, Jewish country as much as possible," said Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement.
"I don't know why the Palestinians deserve a country that is clean of Jews . . . and we are becoming a binational country, where 20 percent of the population are minorities. If we want to keep this a Jewish, Zionist country, there is no other solution," he said.
Olmert brought Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party's 11 seats into the government last week to shore up a shaky coalition -- a move roundly criticized by doves and Israeli Arab activists .
Lieberman's hawkish views also raised concerns he would use his high-profile post as minister to block attempts to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Olmert rejected Lieberman's remarks yesterday.
"The opinions he expressed are not the government's position, and Lieberman knows that I am for complete equal rights for the Arab citizens of Israel," Olmert said in the weekly Cabinet meeting. "As long as I am the prime minister, that is the policy of the government."
Lieberman, born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, is immensely popular among Israel's 1 million immigrants from the remnants of the Soviet Union, as well as among hawks who are frustrated by more than six years of Israel i -Palestinian fighting.
"The source of the conflict here is not territory, it is not occupation, it is not settlers. It is a clash between two people and two religions. Anywhere in the world where there are two peoples and two religions, whether it's the former Yugoslavia or the Caucasus region in Russia or in Northern Ireland, there is conflict," Lieberman said.
He cited the divided island of Cyprus as an example for Israel to follow. Cyprus has been divided into Greek and Turkish sections since 1974, and repeated UN attempts to reunify the Mediterranean island have failed.
The Greek side is largely Orthodox, while the Turkish side is mostly Muslim.
"What we have seen in Cyprus is that since they have that model, there is no terror. There is security. There is no peace, but there is security," he said.
Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog of the dovish Labor Party called on Olmert to bring in Lieberman to clarify his comments.
"Whoever understands the situation in Cyprus realizes how much it is not related to Israel," Herzog said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also condemned Lieberman's words. "What Israel needs is not more racist decisions," he said. "What Israel needs is exactly what the Palestinians need for the future of security and peace, and that is two states living side by side."