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Hardliner Lieberman returns as Israel foreign minister

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Rightwing firebrand Avigdor Lieberman took his oath of office in front of the Israeli parliament on Monday, returning as foreign minister after he quit to fight corruption allegations.

The 120-member house confirmed his reappointment by a vote of 62 to 17, almost a year after he resigned to fight the charges which he was cleared of last week.

Lieberman heads the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party which entered into a formal alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud in October.

Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu told a meeting of ministers and MPs from the alliance that he looked forward to Lieberman's return to government.

"In a few hours we shall be able to welcome (him) back to the cabinet table," he said in remarks broadcast on public radio. "I missed him."

"We have a lot to work on; great tests and great challenges," Netanyahu added. "Welcome back."

Netanyahu had been holding the foreign affairs portfolio himself during Lieberman's absence, with Zeev Elkin, of Yisrael Beitenu, serving as deputy minister.

A Knesset statement said that Elkin would now relinquish that post.

It did not give further details but media speculated that the job might go to a member of another party, to counterbalance Yisrael Beitenu's increased presence in the senior ranks on Lieberman's return.

There is also stiff competition to take over Lieberman's chairmanship of the prestigious parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee, which has now fallen vacant.

Critics have long accused Lieberman of racism, especially after he said much of Israel's Arab-populated areas should be joined to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel keeping its West Bank settlements.

He has also shown open disdain for western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, calling him a "diplomatic terrorist" and an obstacle to peace.

Lawmaker Zehava Gal-On of the leftwing opposition Meretz party, said that reinstating the burly former nightclub bouncer could further complicate already faltering US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

"It's like putting a bomb in the peace process," she told the parliament.

Lieberman quit in December 2012 after being charged with fraud and breach of trust for appointing diplomat Zeev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia after he warned Lieberman about a police probe into his affairs.

The prosecution said the appointment was given as a reward and represented a serious conflict of interest, particularly as Lieberman had not made anyone aware of the tip-off.

A Jerusalem court on Wednesday agreed that Lieberman had engaged in "inappropriate conduct".

But it did not find it warranted a criminal conviction and announced his acquittal in a hearing that lasted just a few minutes.

On Sunday, the state attorney's office said in response to a petition that while Lieberman's actions had been ethically problematic, there were "no legal grounds to prevent (him) from being appointed as minister".

Labour MP Micky Rosenthal said in the parliamentary debate that accompanied Lieberman's confirmation on Monday that although the court had cleared him of breaking the law, there was still "a giant shadow over his public behaviour".

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131111/hardliner-lieberman-returns-israel-foreign-minister-1