Olmert scrambles to shore up faltering gov’t

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — With his political fortunes plummeting after the summer’s war in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scrambling to shore up his rickety coalition by courting a hardline party that favours redrawing Israel’s borders to exclude Arab citizens.

Bringing the Yisrael Beitenu Party into the coalition would mark a sharp turn to the right for Olmert, who was elected on pledges to cede large parts of the West Bank, and could hurt already slim chances of restarting peace talks.

Olmert’s main coalition partner, the dovish Labour Party, has indicated it could bolt the coalition if Yisrael Beitenu joins.

Olmert is trying to broaden his centre-left government — riven by internal conflicts and heavy criticism for what are widely seen as serious failures in the handling of the war against Hizbollah — as the fall parliamentary session begins next week. The government has to pass its budget by March at the latest. If coalition infighting prevents that from happening, the government would automatically fall, leading to elections.

“Olmert’s public legitimacy is down and he’s looking to survive,” said political analyst Hanan Crystal. He said bringing Yisrael Beitenu on board would help blunt some of the hardline criticism, but would also be an admission that there will be no progress in dealings with the Palestinians or Syria, a main supporter of Hizbollah.

“Bringing Yisrael Beitenu in means announcing publicly that there will be paralysis, and many in Labor won’t agree to that,” he said.

Yisrael Beitenu, or “Israel Our Home,” is led by Avigdor Lieberman, a tough-talking immigrant born in Moldova who draws much of his support among the estimated one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Lieberman, who was a top aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to redraw Israel’s map by transferring many Israeli Arab towns to Palestinian jurisdiction and annexing large Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel. His tough line has drawn charges of racism.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declined to comment on Lieberman, saying it is an internal Israeli matter. “But I hope that whatever government is formed it moves for reconciliation, not for confrontation,” he said.

Olmert has been courting Lieberman over the past week, including at least one meeting between them.

Olmert would like to add Yisrael Beitenu to the coalition, but he is not willing to change the government’s basic guidelines or cause Labour to leave, government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

“The party has policies that are unacceptable to the government, such as its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but if Yisrael Beitenu is willing to abide by the government guidelines it’s welcome,” she said.

Officials in Olmert’s office said the prime minister fears that without Lieberman, his government won’t last and there will be another national election within a year. Olmert’s Kadima Party was elected to power last March. But it only holds 29 seats, needing support from other parties to control a majority in the 120-member parliament.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to talk to the press, said much of Olmert’s unease has to do with the internal divisions within Labour, which is headed by the unpopular defence minister, Amir Peretz.

Several Labour lawmakers accuse Peretz, a former union leader, of abandoning his social-welfare agenda and are threatening not to support the budget.

On Thursday, the Haaretz daily reported that Peretz had rejected the addition of Lieberman in a meeting with Olmert. “It is not a matter of the rejection of an individual, but of an entirely different world view on all issues,” Peretz was quoted as saying.

But Olmert hopes Peretz will come around to the idea of adding the hawkish party, the officials in Olmert’s office said, because Peretz, like Olmert, can little afford to face elections anytime soon.

A poll published Thursday in the daily Yediot Ahronot showed that if elections were held now, Olmert’s Kadima Party would fall to a dismal 15 seats — tying for third place with Labour.

The hardline Likud, now in opposition, would win the election with 22 seats, according to Thursday’s poll, and Yisrael Beitenu would come in second with 20 seats, both parties nearly doubling their strength. The pollsters interviewed 501 people, and the margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.

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