Israel's new coalition government to be sworn in today

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's new coalition government, which includes a strong showing of pro-settlement hardliners, was to be sworn in on Monday just two days before a top-level visit by US President Barack Obama.

Following more than 40 days of tortuous negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday announced he had managed to piece together a new government with a majority of 68 within the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Israel's 33rd government will be formally sworn in before parliament in a ceremony which will begin at 1300 GMT (9pm Singapore time).

Despite a strong showing by the new secular centrist Yesh Atid party (19 seats), the lineup is predominantly rightwing with several key ministries handed to settler activists who have vowed to advance construction across the Green Line.

Both the defence and housing ministries, both of which play central roles in approving settlement construction, have been handed to rightwing MPs with pro-settlement track records.

"The era of Ehud Barak is over. The new government will strengthen settlement in Judaea and Samaria," said incoming deputy defence minister Danny Danon, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

Mr Barak stepped down as defence minister last week and has been replaced by Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff from Mr Netanyahu's rightwing Likud who is strongly pro-settlement and has vocally opposed any freeze on construction.

Another key portfolio is the housing ministry, which is being turned over to Mr Uri Ariel, an ultra-nationalist settler who is number two in Jewish Home (12 seats), another key coalition partner which is on the far-right of the political spectrum and completely opposes a Palestinian state.

Eleventh-hour agreements to form the government were signed on Friday with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home agreeing to join the Likud-Beitenu alliance (31 seats), which fuses Mr Netanyahu's Likud with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu of ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The centrist HaTnuah party (six seats) of Ms Tzipi Livni is also to be part of the government, with the former foreign minister to be Israel's negotiator in talks with the Palestinians.

At the insistence of Yesh Atid the government will be the first in 29 years to exclude ultra-Orthodox parties.

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