Leading article: Cynical and unnecessary

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Ehud Olmert's decision to bring the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman into the Israeli government may be the cunning ruse of a prime minister determined to shore up his own position at almost any cost. But it cannot be in Israel's interests.

Mr Lieberman is an able demagogue with a chequered past who has built his popularity - mainly among immigrants from the former Soviet Union - on three pillars, each of them contentious. First, he has proposed expelling all Israeli Arabs who do not declare "complete loyalty" to the Jewish state, and executing any Arab members of the Knesset who talk to Hamas. Second, he has made the sinister - and false - proposition that Israel's freedom of operation is too constrained by the checks and balances of its democratic system. And third, he has opposed the pull-out from Gaza that Mr Olmert so prominently supported.

Mr Olmert may be irritated that two Labour MPs in his coalition have occasionally rebelled in Knesset votes. But his government has not yet been seriously threatened. In any case, the left-wing Meretz would be a much more internationally acceptable means of expanding his coalition.

It is cynical in the extreme for Mr Olmert to appoint to his inner Security Cabinet a man who once suggested bombing the Aswan Dam as well as Tehran. Policy on Iran, which Mr Olmert rightly says is as serious an issue as any faced by Israel, has been turned at best into a square on the snakes and ladders board of the country's domestic politics, at worst into something much more dangerous.

By inserting himself at the heart of a centrist government, Mr Lieberman has triumphantly brought himself in from the margins. It is not surprising that the process by which he has done so has been compared in Israel to the first steps to parliamentary power taken by Mussolini and Hitler. At very least, Mr Lieberman's presence will reinforce the existing tendency to eschew any political or diplomatic initiatives, whether on Syria or the Palestinians.

Labour is likely to remain in the coalition, if only because Amir Peretz, the Labour leader and Defence Minister, would have a problem rebuilding his own credibility in opposition - weakened as it is by the failings of the Lebanon war and the erosion of his social agenda. But he may find it even more difficult to do so if he remains in government with a man whose cabinet presence he once said was a "red line" he would not cross.

Whatever this says about Labour or Avigdor Lieberman, however, it says most about Mr Olmert. It only reinforces the impression that this is a man who falls far short of being the statesman Israel so badly needs at its helm.

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