Israeli Parliament Approves Netanyahu as Prime Minister

Israeli Prime Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leaves his office at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, early Tuesday, March 31, 2009. Netanyahu is expected to present his government to the parliament on Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Vaaknin)
Israeli Prime Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leaves his office at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, early Tuesday, March 31, 2009. Netanyahu is expected to present his government to the parliament on Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Vaaknin) (David Vaaknin - AP)

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 31 -- Israel's parliament on Tuesday approved Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, ushering in a government at odds with international expectations that Israel should pursue negotiations that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu's government -- a coalition that includes nationalist, ultra-Orthodox and social democratic factions, as well as his own Likud party -- says it represents an electorate that has soured on peace talks with the Palestinians, grown weary over rocket fire from Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip, and become increasingly worried about Iranian influence and nuclear technology.

Netanyahu has promised to confront what he calls "extreme Islam" and fend off international pressure for territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He says he can do more to improve relations with the Palestinians by strengthening the economy in the occupied West Bank than other Israeli leaders have achieved in years of inconclusive negotiations.

Those discussions will continue, he said Tuesday, and have as their aim more Palestinian self-rule. "We do not want to govern another people," he said. "I am telling the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, if you really want peace, it is possible to reach peace."

But he said his efforts as prime minister will not be consumed with negotiating the international borders of an independent Palestinian state, a task implicit in the idea of a two-state solution that forms the basis of U.S. and international policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Economic and security cooperation between the two sides, he said, will be the priorities.

Netanyahu's approach bridges the central divisions in Israeli society even as it raises the risk of a breach in Israel's relations with the Obama administration and the European Union.

Netanyahu's coalition partners are hardly of one mind. The weeks since February's elections have been spent in intense bartering over agreements that will allow the Labor Party, traditionally considered part of the country's peace camp, to coexist with members of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is so mistrustful of Palestinians and of Arabs with Israeli citizenship that he campaigned on a pledge to introduce a national loyalty oath.

The resulting quilt of cabinet portfolios, subdivided ministries and financial promises has put Netanyahu in charge of one of Israel's largest cabinets and led to early criticism that he abandoned conservative economics to make deals.

Concern also grew overseas as the shape of his cabinet became clear, particularly with Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister and emergence as one of the government's top three figures, along with Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu himself.

As Israel's top diplomat, Lieberman takes office having to combat a perception that he holds racist views about Arabs, and confronting the suspicion, particularly strong among Palestinians, that his residence in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank makes him emblematic of the problem rather than part of the solution. A freeze on settlement expansion is a core Palestinian demand.

The situation "looks bleak from a Palestinian perspective," said Palestinian pollster and analyst Khalil Shikaki. "No political agreement. No change on the ground. Increased settlements."

Coalition agreements signed by Netanyahu, Lieberman and the other coalition partners in recent days make no mention of a Palestinian state. Included instead are promises to abide by previous "international agreements"; a commitment to toppling Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement that controls Gaza; and efforts to "prevent the nuclear armament of Iran." Sixty-nine members of the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, voted Tuesday to approve the new government.


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