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Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu could become the newest member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition within two weeks, following what both men described as a narrowing of the gaps between their parties.
Following their successful meeting on Friday, Lieberman said he would meet with Olmert again to discuss joining the coalition after his proposal to change the governmental system is voted on in the Knesset on preliminary reading next week. Lieberman said coalition talks could be completed very quickly, and Olmert's associates said they would be glad if a coalition deal were finalized following Olmert's return from a three-day trip to Russia on October 19.
"Sitting in the opposition is not our ideology," Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "We tried to join the coalition when this government was formed, but we didn't convince Kadima to give up its realignment plan. But now that it has abandoned it, things are different."
Sources close to Lieberman claim that Olmert had asked him to join the government on several occasions, but he turned him down. They said Olmert had moved toward Lieberman's position on several issues, including supporting a change in the governmental system, the abandonment of the realignment plan and an agreement to find a solution for couples unable to marry according to Jewish law.
Asked why he would join a government seen by some as a sinking ship, a source close to Lieberman said, "He wouldn't be seen as a traitor for joining the government, or as doing what is politically expedient, he would be seen as doing the right thing for the country."
Olmert's associates said the prime minister was not concerned about the impact of Lieberman joining the government on either domestic or international politics. They said they were prepared to defend charges from world leaders that adding Lieberman to the government would send a discouraging message about chances for diplomatic progress.
"The world knows that Lieberman served in a government that adopted the road map diplomatic plan, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas knows that Lieberman remained in a government that released Palestinian prisoners," an Olmert associate said. "We don't expect Labor or Shas to leave the government if Israel Beiteinu joins and we won't surrender to threats."
But Olmert's vice premier in Kadima, Shimon Peres, said he opposed adding Lieberman to the coalition. He warned that bringing in Israel Beiteinu could cause Labor's departure and the downfall of Olmert's government.
Labor chairman Amir Peretz declined to react to the possibility of Israel Beiteinu joining the government, preferring to dismiss the idea as "political spin" on the part of Olmert. But sources close to Peretz said he had backed down from his previous insistence that Israel Beiteinu remain outside the coalition and that Peretz lacked the political power to fight the move, especially with Labor's May leadership race approaching.
Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) said he would support Lieberman joining the government. He said he understood Olmert's need to expand the coalition to make up for Labor's lack of dependability ahead of key votes on the 2007 state budget. But most Labor MKs said they opposed a coalition with Israel Beiteinu.
"Olmert is trying to threaten Labor and he is acting like a political hack," said Labor MK Yoram Marciano, a close ally of Peretz. "We are in favor of expanding the coalition, but we won't sit in a government that refuses to remove illegal outposts and, mathematically, there isn't a government without us."
Coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima) said the government could survive even if Labor left. He said he was also confident a compromise could be reached on civil marriage legislation that could allow Israel Beiteinu and Shas to coexist in the coalition.
"I would be happy if Labor stays, but if it goes, I believe other parties will join instead," Yitzhaki said. "We hope Israel Beiteinu joins the government as soon as possible."