- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is courting a far-right party of Russian immigrants in an effort to shore up a governing coalition that has shown signs of unraveling because of disappointment over the handling of the war in Lebanon.

Talks between Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party and Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, are still in a preliminary stage, a spokeswoman for the prime minister said.

Mr. Olmert and Mr. Lieberman met Friday. Negotiators are seeking a middle ground on differences over proposed Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Mr. Lieberman’s support is conditional on Mr. Olmert disavowal of a proposal to withdraw unilaterally from large areas of the West Bank.

Facing a storm of criticism over his handling of the Lebanon war, Mr. Olmert announced he would shelve the pullback idea, but his spokeswoman said he remains committed to the proposal.

“There is a dialogue that is ongoing,” Miri Eisen said. “The prime minister would like to widen the coalition. He has always seen Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu as a potential candidate. The question is whether they can bridge over the differences.”

Bringing Yisrael Beitenu into the coalition would neutralize the center-left tilt in Mr. Olmert’s partnership with the dovish Labor Party, while robbing the right-wing parliamentary opposition of a forceful and provocative voice.

Mr. Lieberman is best known for suggesting that Israel consider unilaterally ceding towns with Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state in order to strengthen the Jewish majority in Israel.

In the last election in March, his party netted 11 seats in parliament — one seat behind the weakened Likud. Those seats would provide critical insulation to the current coalition exposed to threats by dozens of parliamentarians to bolt.

“It’s clear that the situation of the coalition is not” impressive, said Yisrael Beitenu lawmaker Estherina Tratman. “Yisrael Beitenu has a strong desire to influence the country. And we would be very happy to bring our agenda to fruition.”

The party also wants Mr. Olmert to commit to freezing any plan to dismantle dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts, and to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the Lebanon war — a demand Mr. Olmert has steadfastly rejected.

Some members of the Labor Party have threatened to leave the coalition if Mr. Olmert reaches a deal with Mr. Lieberman.

“The perception is that he’s a person almost at the edge of violence in all of his behavior. He deters people,” said Hebrew University professor Avraham Diskin. “He is what the leftists like to portray as at least potentially fascist.”

Observers have speculated that Mr. Olmert is using the threat of an invitation to Mr. Lieberman to keep other coalition partners in line. Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz was quoted as calling Yisrael Beitenu speculation “spin.”

For now, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Lieberman have found common cause pushing wide-ranging legislation to reform Israel’s electoral system so that governments are more stable. With unilateral withdrawals frozen in the immediate future and peace talks on a six-year hiatus, Mr. Olmert needs a new agenda, analysts say.

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