JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched talks on Wednesday with far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman on recruiting him into Israel's coalition government, where he wants to be named defense minister.
Netanyahu, who won a fourth term last year, governs by a majority of one in the 120-member Knesset, making his administration vulnerable to any falling out among his political allies.
It had appeared for the past several days that a course had been set for Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union party, which has 24 lawmakers, to agree on an alliance with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud.
But in a surprise move, Lieberman, who heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, convened a news conference on Wednesday to say he was ready to negotiate a pact with Netanyahu.
Lieberman, whose party has six Knesset seats, demanded the defense portfolio as well as new legislation that would impose capital punishment on Palestinians carrying out fatal attacks.
Within minutes of the offer to talk, Netanyahu - in what one Zionist Union politician described as a humiliation for Herzog - announced he would hold talks with Lieberman, and the two convened at the prime minister's office.
Herzog then froze his own negotiations with the prime minister.
"Until Netanyahu chooses which option he is ready for, toward which option he is headed, we will not negotiate with him in parallel," Herzog said in a speech. But he stopped short of declaring his talks with Netanyahu dead.
Lieberman, a former Netanyahu aide and ex-foreign minister who has had a testy relationship with him, has drawn headlines by repeatedly questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority.
In the past, he has proposed transferring some Arab towns to a future Palestinian state in return for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Enlisting the Zionist Union, which has 24 legislators, would have given Netanyahu a comfortable political cushion and put a more moderate face on his right-wing government at a time when Israeli is grappling with mounting international calls to renew peace talks with the Palestinians that collapsed in 2014.
Herzog has said he was seeking an agreement that would enable him to "stop the danger of international boycott, turn the United States and Europe back into allies, open negotiations with countries in the region and separate from the Palestinians into two states."
But with a deal, Herzog faces the prospect of his own party splitting. Some of its legislators, citing ideological differences with Likud and other right-wing parties in the coalition, threatened not support the government in parliament.
Editing by Angus MacSwan