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Netanyahu agrees to give defense portfolio to ultranationalist Lieberman

Prime Minister Netanyahu seeks to bolster a razor-thin majority in parliament with a far-right alliance. The move may also be an attempt to pull Israel's comparatively moderate military culture farther to the right.

Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invited a hardline nationalist to join his governing coalition, which currently rules with a slim one-vote majority.

Netanyahu has agreed to give the defense ministry portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Israel's ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

Lieberman is a polarizing figure, questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority. He tried and failed to require Israelis to sign a loyalty oath or have their citizenship revoked. He is also

skeptical about pursuing peace with the Palestinians,

and now wants to pass legislation that would impose the death penalty against Arabs convicted of terrorism.

He has become an influential voice within Israel, while alienating many of the country's allies.

Israeli and Palestinian peace talks have been in the deep-freeze for some time, and by elevating extreme nationalists into government, the chances of any thaw in the near future are made that much more remote.

Netanyahu appears more interested in solidifying his one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. The nationalists would boost the Likud-led government's parliamentary majority from 61-67 seats.

Likud party member Yariv Levin said Lieberman's party will bring the government "stability."

But the move also appears to represent a definitive move further to the right for the already avowed right-wing Likud party and its combative leader. In addition,

it may be an attempt to pull Israel's comparatively centrist, and moderate, military to the right.

Respected military chief infuriates Netanyahu

The outgoing defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, is a former military chief of staff who is widely respected for his knowledge of military affairs.

But Yaalon infuriated Netanyahu earlier this month for defending comments made by

a top-ranking Israeli general, who compared the atmosphere of intolerance in Israel to Nazi-era Germany.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog said he would work to topple the "crazy right-wing government."

Separately, Israel's defense ministry announced its missile interceptor defense, known as Iron Dome, had successfully intercepted missiles from a moving navy vessel at sea.

The system, which until now was strictly land-based, can shoot down short-range rockets, comparable to those fired by Hamas from Gaza.

The maritime test destroyed "several" missiles, according to Ariel Shir, who heads the navy's operational systems.

The test "proved the Israeli navy's ability to protect Israel's strategic assets at sea against short-range ballistic rockets," he said.

Israel has several assets in the Mediterranean, including a major offshore gas rig about 16 nautical miles from Gaza. Hamas has previously targeted the installation without success.

Damage to the rig could be hugely damaging to Israeli's economy, since it supplies large amounts of the country's energy needs.

bik/rc (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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