Palestinian leaders have warned the expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel's new defence minister "confirms the lack of a peace partner in Israel".
As representatives of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud continued intensive talks last night with officials from Mr Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu to bring his six-member faction into the coalition, the Palestinian foreign ministry said it was not surprised.
“The inclusion of Lieberman, known for his extreme right-wing stance toward the Palestinians, is new evidence that Netanyahu, as usual, has preferred to promote extremism in his government, which has become, as described by the Hebrew media, the most extreme government in Israel’s history,” it said in a statement.
A Palestinian official said that Mr Lieberman as defence minister would be a “disaster” for Palestinians.
Under the terms of the emerging deal, the outspoken Mr Lieberman will replace Moshe Ya’alon, considered a moderate pragmatist within Likud, as defence minister, while Yisrael Beiteinu will also receive the immigration absorption portfolio.
In addition, Mr Netanyahu agreed to back legislation introducing the death penalty for terrorist attacks and to boost pensions for Russian immigrants.
The emerging deal to bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the government, which enjoys a wafer-thin majority of 61 in the 120-member Knesset, has come as a bombshell, and proved again nobody can match Mr Netanyahu when it comes to manoeuvring.
For weeks, he had been negotiating to bring the centre-left Zionist Union, headed by Labour's Yitzhak Herzog, into the government, and to appoint Mr Herzog as foreign minister with promises for a resumption of the peace process in co-ordination with moderate Arab states.
However, opposition within the Zionist Union to any deal with Mr Netanyahu was matched by disapproval within the Likud and the other right-wing coalition parties to a deal with Mr Herzog. Mr Netanyahu realised Mr Herzog couldn’t rely on more than one-third of the Zionist Union’s 24 deputies and so he turned to Mr Lieberman, despite the two men despising each other.
Mr Lieberman (57), who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s from the former Soviet Union, has served two terms as foreign minister. He is a blunt-speaking populist who has called for ousting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and toppling Hamas in Gaza, and even suggested once Israel should bomb the Aswan dam in Egypt.
Likud Knesset member Benny Begin, the son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin, said appointing Mr Lieberman as defence minister was "delusional". "This step reflects irresponsibility toward the defence establishment and the citizens of Israel . . . " he said.
The liberal Ha'aretz daily said it was hard to imagine Mr Netanyahu making a more reckless and irresponsible decision: "Now Lieberman will be in charge of the army and of the occupation machine in the territories, with an almost unlimited potential to foment crises and to jeopardise the national interest."