Israel’s new leader Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to seek “full peace” with the Arab and Muslim world, but refused to utter the words everyone was waiting to hear: “Palestinian state.”
Netanyahy took pains yesterday to portray himself as a pragmatist, telling a packed parliament that Israel did not want to rule the Palestinians.
“Under the permanent status agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority to rule themselves,” Mr Netanyahu said.
His comments appeared to hark back to a decades-old notion that peace could be achieved through limited Palestinian autonomy.
But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “I want to say to Mr Netanyahu that the only way the Palestinians can rule themselves, by themselves, is through ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and establishing an independent Palestinian state.”
Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to embrace the idea of Palestinian statehood could put him at odds with Barack Obama’s US administration and much of the rest of the world – as could his decision to appoint ultra-nationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.
In recent days, however, Mr Netanyahu has moved to soften his image, welcoming the centrist Labour party into an otherwise markedly right-wing coalition and announcing that he supports peace talks with the Palestinians.
The 59-year-old politician – the son of a prominent historian and the brother of a war hero who died commanding the daring 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe, Uganda – is returning to the premiership a decade after being forced from it amid a string of failures.
In his speech before parliament yesterday, Mr Netanyahu praised Islamic culture as “great and rich” and said Israel and moderate Arab states could find common ground fighting radical Islam and what he called the extremist regime in Tehran.
“Israel has always, and today more than ever, striven to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world,” he said.
Meanwhile a senior Netanyahu aide appeared to suggest his boss would accept the much hailed two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the next few weeks, perhaps ahead of a planned trip to the US.
The aide said Mr Netanyahu would say something that would “take this issue off the table” and avoid confrontation with the world.
If he does, Mr Netanyahu would join the ranks of hardline Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, who changed their minds about giving up land and ended up making far-reaching concessions.
But so far there is no indication that Mr Netanyahu’s latest conciliatory statements are anything more than words designed to curry favour with the West.
He has not retracted his promise to press ahead with construction in West Bank settlements to make room for settlers’ growing families.
And his new government includes many ministers opposed to territorial compromise, including a housing minister from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party that sees giving up land as a betrayal of God’s will.
Perhaps most troubling to those seeking moderation in Middle East politics is the fact that Mr Lieberman, head of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu Party, is now the Jewish state’s top diplomat.
He based his recent campaign on a proposal that would require Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to Israel or lose their citizenship.
Mr Netanyahu’s 28 ministers were sworn in at a special session last night after parliament approved the new government by a 69-45 vote.
The new Cabinet is an unwieldy group hailing from ultra-Orthodox parties, a hardline religious party, a hawkish secular faction, along with Labour and Mr Netanyahu’s Likud.
To placate his new partners and his allies, Mr Netanyahu created new ministerial positions – so many that parliament carpenters had to work overnight to enlarge the Cabinet’s table.
In his speech, Netanyahu singled out Iran as Israel’s biggest threat and urged the world to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
“The greatest danger to humanity, and to our country Israel, stems from the possibility of a radical regime arming itself with nuclear weapons,” he said.
“We shall not allow anybody or any country to put any question mark over our existence.”
Mr Netanyahu warned that “radical Islam is trying to eradicate us” and noted that Israel was battling militant Islamic groups on both its northern and southern borders.