Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel extends its hand to the Palestinians in peace, but also said that peace — and Israel’s survival — depends on its strength, as he was formally tapped by President Reuven Rivlin Thursday to form the next government.
Speaking at the President’s Residence, Netanyahu promised to patch up ties with the US and within Israel, but insisted Israel would do everything to thwart the emerging Iranian nuclear deal, which he said was “an agreement that endangers us, our neighbors and the world.”
“Our hand is extended in peace to our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said. But he quickly added: “The people of Israel know that real peace, that our entire future, will only be secured if Israel remains strong,” Netanyahu said.
Israel can only meet the many challenges it faces in the region if it is strong and united, he said.
The prime minister’s comments came amid heightened tensions with the US over the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel opposes, and comments by Netanyahu before the election that there would be no Palestinian state under his leadership.
The prime minister walked back those comments after the election, but the White House has refused to accept the retraction.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama weighed in with a fierce criticism, saying the US could not base its diplomacy on the “dim” peace prospects under Netanyahu’s leadership. While stressing that the tensions were not personal and the two had a “businesslike” relationship, Obama said: “We believe two states is the best path forward for Israeli security, for Palestinian aspirations and regional stability. Netanyahu has a different approach and so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.”
Speaking before Netanyahu, Rivlin said the next government has three major responsibilities — protecting relations with the US, stabilizing the Israeli political system and restoring the public’s faith in it, and healing the social discord that arose during the elections.
“I have decided to give you the role of putting together the government,” Rivlin told Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the event, noting that a majority of Knesset members had recommended the Likud leader for the task. He urged Netanyahu to build a coalition that is stable “and as wide as possible.”
The president spoke of the stormy election, during which, he lamented, “things were said that should not have been said, not in a Jewish state and not in a democratic state. The height of the flames serves nobody. The fire will not only heat, it is likely to burn.”
He urged Netanyahu to start working to “heal the rifts” exposed during “a hard election campaign.” And he said it was important that Israel not find itself holding elections again two years from now. The March 17 elections were triggered two years early when Netanyahu fired his finance and justice minister in December.
Netanyahu, in turn, vowed to lower housing prices and the cost of living, as well as to defuse social tensions. He said: “I see myself as the prime minister of each and every one of you, those who voted for me, and those did not.”
“We must put the elections behind us and focus on the things that unite us,” Netanyahu said.
He said he felt a profound “sense of responsibility” at being chosen to lead Israel for another term, and that he was “as moved as I was the first time” he was elected.
Earlier on Wednesday, Rivlin spared no criticism for Netanyahu’s remarks during the election day that Arab Israelis were “voting in droves,” without naming the prime minister.
“We’ve received a higher turnout than in previous years,” Rivlin said, adding that it is “a blessing for democracy.”
“Woe to us if we see in the fulfillment of the democratic duty of voting a curse or something that must be warned against. Those afraid of ballots in the box will ultimately receive stone-throwing in the streets,” he added.
During the voting, Netanyahu sent out a message that Arabs were voting “in droves” in a bid to drum up right-wing support. The remarks were fiercely criticized in Israel and by the US administration. The prime minister this week expressed remorse over the comments.
Earlier on Wednesday, Rivlin held a joint press conference with Central Elections Committee head Salim Joubran, who formally handed over the election results to the president. The president said he would give the candidate who received the most recommendations for the premiership the first opportunity to build a coalition. Netanyahu received 67 votes from MKs earlier in the week, clinching support from a majority of Israel’s 120 lawmakers.
The prime minister has already begun coalition talks, meeting with the leaders of the Kulanu, Jewish Home, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu parties in the last few days, but is expected to run into some difficulties in distributing senior positions among his future partners.
He is likely to encounter challenges over the defense portfolio — a position sought by Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, while Likud hopes to keep Moshe Ya’alon in the position.
According to Channel 2, Netanyahu met with members of United Torah Judaism on Wednesday, and promised them the Health Ministry and control over the Knesset Finance Committee. On Tuesday he reportedly promised Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon the Finance Ministry portfolio.
Netanyahu also met with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman earlier Tuesday. Liberman told Channel 2 that his meeting with Netanyahu went well, but would not elaborate. He said that nothing has yet been promised to him, and emphasized he understands that he will not receive all of his demands.
The Jewish Home party announced Tuesday its demands in the coalition talks – the defense, education and religious affairs ministries, Haaretz reported.
The party — which holds eight Knesset seats — will likely join the coalition even if it does not receive all three portfolios, analysts say.
Netanyahu also met with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who is vying for the Interior Ministry, on Wednesday.
Netanyahu will have four weeks to form his government, with an option to extend talks for another two.
Aside from handing appointments to coalition partners, Netanyahu will also have to find roles for several MKs in his Likud faction, which won 30 seats in last week’s election, becoming the largest faction in the Knesset.
Likud party officials announced that they would move to ensure that no. 3 on the party’s list, Yuli Edelstein, will be reelected as Knesset speaker. Senior Likud representatives are expected to demand a large number of top cabinet positions from Netanyahu, owing to the large size of the party.
Analysts believe the incoming government will be formed by right-wing and religious parties, some of which oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and that if Netanyahu bows to international pressure to disengage or evacuate settlements in the West Bank, he could risk a coalition break-up leading to new elections.
In Israel, prime ministers are given a mandate to govern for four years, but terms rarely last that long due to coalition infighting and eventual government breakdowns.
Meretz, Yesh Atid, Zionist Union and the Joint (Arab) List are expected to sit in the opposition.
Avi Lewis and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report