Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his new government was extending its hand in peace to the Palestinians, declaring that he was ready to make a “historic compromise” if they return to the negotiating table with good will.
Laying out the agenda for his new term, Netanyahu said he hopes to rejuvenate peace efforts, which remained frozen throughout the four-year term Netanyahu just completed.
Netanyahu spoke before a ceremony to install his new coalition government, stitched together after nearly six weeks of negotiations following Israel’s January 22 parliamentary election. The new team, made up of hard-liners and moderates, appears to be focused more on domestic issues than peacemaking.
Netanyahu struck the conciliatory tone ahead of the arrival of US President Barack Obama, who will hold separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But he spoke in generalities and gave no details on any possible concrete concessions.
“We stretch out our hand in peace to the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has proven time and again it is ready for concessions in exchange for real peace, and the situation today is no different.”
“With a Palestinian partner that is willing to hold negotiations in good will, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all,” he said.
Netanyahu said Obama’s visit would be an opportunity to thank the American people and its leader for the steadfast relationship. He said he’ll discuss with Obama “the great challenges facing our two peoples” and plans to work with him in the next four years toward peace and to meet the regional challenges.
“There are certain opportunities… (and) the government will have to show enough courage” to counter the challenges and seize the opportunities, he said. “We’ll never forget the heavy responsibility on our shoulders to ensure the future of our people.”
Recognizing the deep gaps between the sides, the White House has said Obama will not bring any bold new peace initiatives with him, but will instead send Secretary of State John Kerry back to the region in the near future to see if progress can be made.
The Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu in his last term while Israel continued to build homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians say construction in the areas, which Israel captured in 1967 and where they hope to establish a state, is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the two areas.
Netanyahu has withstood pressure from the international community and refused to halt settlement construction, saying negotiations should resume without any preconditions.
In an impassioned speech, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) criticized Netanyahu for his right-wing diplomatic and economic views. Invoking her former party leader, assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, she quoted Rabin in calling for an “end to the bloodshed” and for the start of an era of friendship and coexistence.
“I find it hard to imagine you saying those words,” she said to Netanyahu. Yet she promised to support Netanyahu if he is poised to make real progress toward peace with the Palestinians and needs Labor’s votes. “If you get even to an interim agreement… I promise you, what I said to you face-to-face,” she said, “we will join your government in order to see through such a move.”
Eitan Cabel, also from the Labor party, also touched upon the peace stalemate. “The crisis is ahead of us,” he said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that it’s the key issue. He warned Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid to be aware of the differences between his party and the Jewish Home regarding the Palestinians.
Since winning re-election, Netanyahu has said he would make peace efforts a priority in his new term. But during weeks of coalition negotiations, he hasn’t given any indication of what he would do. Monday’s speech was also devoid of specifics.
Ahead of Netanyahu’s speech, one of his key partners, Avigdor Liberman, said anyone who thinks peace can be reached is “delusional.” Liberman also said he would fight any attempts to freeze settlement construction.
Considering this a recipe for deadlock, the Palestinians have shown no optimism over the new Israeli government.
The election focused heavily on domestic issues, such as the high cost of living and calls to end a contentious system that has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to be exempt from compulsory military service.
Netanyahu played down these issues in his speech. He said that while there is an “amazing opportunity” to deal with them, his first concern was to protect Israel. He listed a number of security threats to Israel, including Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, instability in neighboring Egypt, the civil war to Israel’s north in Syria and the threat of sophisticated weapons reaching the hands of violent anti-Israel groups.
“That’s why the first priority in the course of the new government will be the protection of the state and its citizens,” he said.
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