Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term as Israeli prime minister yesterday at the helm of a right-wing government that has raised fears about the future of the Middle East peace process.
Netanyahu was to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and former prime minister Ehud Olmert for a ceremony after being sworn in late on Tuesday at the head of a 30-member Cabinet, the largest in Israel’s 60-year history.
Parliament approved by a 69-to-45 vote Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes his right-wing Likud, the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, ultra-Orthodox Shas and a small religious faction as well as the center-left Labour party.
In his address to the 120-seat parliament, the 59-year-old Netanyahu said the biggest threat Israel faced was the possibility of “a radical regime armed with nuclear weapons” — a clear reference to arch-foe Iran.
But the hawkish Likud leader said peace with the Palestinians was possible, while making no mention of a future Palestinian state.
“We will carry out peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority with a view to reaching a final accord.
“Under the final accord, the Palestinians will have all the rights to govern themselves except those that can put in danger the security and existence of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians have given a cold welcome to the new government, with president Mahmud Abbas saying yesterday that Netanyahu “does not believe in peace” and urging the international community to pile pressure on Israel.
“Benjamin Netanyahu never believed in a two-state solution or accepted signed agreements and does not want to stop settlement activity. This is obvious,” Abbas told the official Palestinian news agency.
“We have to tell the world that this man does not believe in peace, so how should we deal with him? Let’s put the ball in the world’s court so that it puts pressure on him and assumes its responsibilities,” he said.
Since being charged with forming a government after the Feb. 10 general election, Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear that his priority was dealing with arch-foe Iran, rather than moving the hobbled peace talks forward.
“It is shameful that decades after the Holocaust, calls by Iranian leaders to destroy Israel are greeted with indifference by the world,” he said. “Contrary to what happened during the last century, today we have the means to defend ourselves.”
Israel’s Peace Now anti-settlement watchdog has called the new Cabinet “one of the most right-wing governments ever known in Israel.”
The new foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, a firebrand ex-bouncer and immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova who has been branded a “racist” by critics for his anti-Arab diatribes.