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US: Addition of Liberman to coalition ‘raises questions’

State Department says it has ‘legitimate’ concerns about what deal with hardliner means for government commitment to two-state solution

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The United States said Wednesday that the make-up of Israel’s new right-wing coalition raises “legitimate questions” about the government’s commitment to a two-state solution in its conflict with the Palestinians.

In a rare comment on the internal politics of a US ally, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington had “seen reports from Israel describing it as the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.”

“And we also know that many of its ministers have said they oppose a two-state solution. This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be headed in and what kind of policies it may adopt,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Avigdor Liberman as defense minister and welcomed lawmakers from his Yisrael Beytenu party to the ranks of his coalition after reaching a deal with the nationalist party earlier Wednesday.

Toner also restated the United States’ support for a negotiated end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians based on two states living side by side within agreed borders.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not have an immediate response to Toner’s comments.

Liberman, who has spoken of harsh measures against Palestinian “terrorists,” sought to allay concerns over his appointment with a promise to act in a “responsible” manner while in office. At a joint press conference Wednesday with Netanyahu, he pledged his commitment to “peace and to a final status agreement, and to understanding between us and our neighbors.” Those remarks were plainly directed at critics, at home and abroad, of the coalition’s hawkish nature.

Netanyahu has continued to insist that he wants to negotiate peace with the Palestinians; he said Wednesday: “My government remains committed to pursuing peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. My policy has not changed. We will pursue every avenue for peace while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.”

But Liberman’s arrival in the cabinet has raised concerns inside and outside of Israel that it will toughen its stance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman announce their coalition agreement, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman announce their coalition agreement, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“Ultimately, we’re going to judge this government based on its actions,” Toner said. “We are going to work with this government as we have worked with every Israeli government that preceded it with the goal of strengthening cooperation. And we remain steadfast in our commitment to the security of Israel and to the two-state solution.”

The deal brings to a stunning conclusion weeks of speculation over Netanyahu’s efforts to expand his government, which has held only 61 of the 120 seats in parliament since elections in March 2015.

Netanyahu had earlier engaged in negotiations with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog to join the government before turning to Liberman instead.

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