Labour minister quits over Lieberman's role

A lone Labour minister has resigned in protest at the inclusion of the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman in the coalition cabinet of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ophir Pines-Paz was the only minister to vote against the cabinet decision which, by a large majority, cleared the way for Mr Lieberman to become the Deputy Prime Minister. He said Mr Lieberman was "tainted by racist declarations".

Mr Pines-Paz immediately announced yesterday that he would join a clutch of rival Labourites planning to stand next year against Amir Peretz, the incumbent party leader and Defence Minister, who successfully argued that the party should not trigger a political crisis by walking out of the coalition over Mr Lieberman.

Mr Lieberman, whose party envisages redrawing the border of Israel to transfer Arab population centres into Palestinian Authority areas under the banner "Israel is our home; Palestine is theirs" will be responsible for dealing with "strategic threats" against Israel.

Mr Pines-Paz said his conscience had left him no choice but to leave the government once it had decided to bring in Mr Lieberman and the 11 Knesset members in his Yisrael Biteinu party, swelling Mr Olmert's majority coalition to 78 out of 120 MPs.

He said that Yisrael Biteinu had a platform with "racist ingredients" and its leaders were tainted "by racist declarations and declarations that harm the democratic character of Israel". He said it had been "necessary" for Mr Peretz to tell the Prime Minister to choose between Mr Lieberman and the Labour Party.

Seeking to pre-empt fears that Mr Lieberman will make a political process with the Palestinians an even more distant prospect than it is already, Mr Olmert insisted his inclusion would leave intact the government's original guidelines, which commit it to seeking such a process.

But a downbeat Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs envoy, said yesterday, after a six-day trip to the region, that while progress between Israel and the Palestinians was vital to wider stability in the Middle East, last summer's war in Lebanon and the nuclear ambitions of Iran had "complicated" the chances of achieving it.

Meanwhile, Palestinian gunmen kidnapped a Spanish aid worker in Gaza yesterday, a Palestinian security source and the Spanish organisation said.

The kidnapped man was Roberto Villa Sexto, 32, of the Co-operative Assembly for Peace, a Spanish charity. He had been working in the Gaza Strip and West Bank for two years.

"He was in the organisation's car with a [female] colleague. They [the kidnappers] stopped the car and made him get out and took him away," said a spokeswoman, Joana Modolell.

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