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Israeli settler to be appointed foreign minister under Netanyahu

March 16, 2009 9:53 A.M. (Updated: March 16, 2009 9:53 A.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benyamin Netanyahu will appoint Avigdor Lieberman to the foreign minister post, according to Monday news reports.

Likud Party chair Netanyahu was speeding up coalition negotiations late on Sunday, when he agreed to hand over the post, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported early on Monday.

Netanyahu is nearing his deadline to establish a government following February elections in Israel. Sources close to the prime minister-designate told Haaretz he hopes to wrap up negotiations by Thursday or next Monday at the latest, but others told the paper the recent announcements might be a ruse to pull Kadima or Labor into the coalition.

Lieberman, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Noqedim, chairs the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party (Israel Is Our Home, in English), which he founded in 1999.

It was not immediately clear how or if an ongoing corruption investigation would affect Lieberman's appointment to the foreign minister post. Israeli police allege the former Knesset member illegally received millions of shekels while serving as an MK, which is illegal under Israeli law.

Lieberman has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, insisting that the police are conspiring against him, and that such investigations are "part of my routine before every parliamentary election."

According to right-wing Israeli news agency Arutz Sheva, the investigation has been "going on for years, suddenly becoming active again once [Lieberman] left the government" in January 2008 in protest of Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians.

Lieberman is a particularly controversial pick for the foreign post due to his insistence that Israel seek "land and population exchanges" between future Palestinian and Israeli states. The plan would see Israel retain control over settlements in the West Bank in exchange for PA control over sections of Israel inhabited by Palestinian citizens.

He also is an advocate of forced "loyalty tests" for Arab citizens of Israel, as well as others, stripping those who refuse of their citizenship but allowing them to remain permanent residents.

Lieberman is not a native-born Israeli. He is from the Soviet Union, where he worked as a nightclub bouncer and broadcaster before emigrating to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20. He was a member of Israel's military and holds a degree in international affairs from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Shortly after his move to Israel, Lieberman joined the now-illegal Kach Party, an organization so right wing that Israel banned it outright from running in elections. Like Hamas, the group is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, Canada, the European Union and the United States.

Among Lieberman's more controversial statements was a 2002 announcement, after a string of Palestinian attacks, that "if it were up to me I would notify the Palestinian Authority tomorrow at ten in the morning we would bomb all their places of business in Ramallah, for example."

In July 2003, after then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to grant amnesty to 250 Palestinian prisoners, Lieberman said, "It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that's the lowest point in the world." Arab members of the Knesset condemned the remarks, as well as then opposition leader Shimon Peres.

In January 2009, during Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip, Lieberman implied Israel should consider using nuclear weapons in Gaza, and that Israel "must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II. Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary."

Lieberman has also drawn criticism for calling for the execution of Arab Knesset members who have met with Hamas officials, saying that "heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in [the Israeli parliament]."

The outburst led to Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, demanding a criminal investigation over Lieberman's "incitement and racism." He was eventually cleared of racism charges by Israeli prosecutors.

In 2008 at the Knesset, Lieberman insisted a recent Palestinian attack not "be disconnected from the Arab MKs' incitement, which we hear daily in the Knesset," and, looking toward Palestinian parliament members, said "a new administration will be established and then we will take care of you."

Tibi described Lieberman as "a racist and a fascist" after he was cleared of charges and appointed as an Israeli cabinet minister.

After Lieberman's appointment, Labor minister and opposition leader Ophir Pines-Paz resigned, repeating Tibi's remarks and insisting that Lieberman is tainted "by racist declarations and declarations that harm the democratic character of Israel."

Pines-Paz rejected allegations that his resignation over an internal political matter could be viewed a strategic threat to Israel's government, saying, "Lieberman is himself a strategic threat."

Lieberman is married to Ella Tzipkin, and is the father of three children. He lives in the illegal Israeli settlement of Noqedim, which is south of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
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