JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel was ready for a “historic compromise” in talks with the Palestinians as he presented a new government that is a mix of centrists and hawkish supporters of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Speaking in parliament before the 22 ministers were sworn in, Netanyahu said that, while the cabinet would work to carry out domestic reforms that were the focus of Israel’s election in January, the government’s top priority would be “protecting the security of the state and its citizens.”
He said Israel faced threats from Iran’s nuclear program and the upheaval in Syria, where he warned that stockpiles of “some of the deadliest weapons on earth” could fall into the hands of militants. He pledged that Israel would “take all measures necessary to prevent those weapons from falling in the hands of the terrorist organizations.”
Two days before a planned visit by President Obama, who is expected to explore options for renewing stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone.
“The new government in Israel extends its hand for peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has proven time and again that it is ready for compromises in return for genuine peace.”
“With a Palestinian partner that is ready to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all,” Netanyahu added.
Still, key positions in his new government are held by strong backers of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, an issue that has stymied efforts to restart peace negotiations. The Palestinians have refused to resume talks unless Israel suspends building in the settlements, while Netanyahu has urged a resumption of talks without preconditions.
Israel’s new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, a hawkish former army chief of staff, has backed building the settlements and retroactive authorization of some settlement outposts built without government permission.
On Monday, an aide said Yaalon opposes a settlement building freeze and other proposed confidence-building measures, such as freeing Palestinian prisoners, and believes that negotiations should resume without inducements to the Palestinians.
Danny Danon, an outspoken backer of the settlements from Netanyahu’s Likud party, was appointed deputy defense minister. The ministry’s approval is required for settlement expansion projects and Danon pledged in a radio interview Monday to promote them.
“The era of Ehud Barak in the Defense Ministry is over,” Danon told Israel Radio, referring to the outgoing defense minister. “We are committed to strengthening settlement.”
The Construction and Housing Ministry was awarded to Uri Ariel, a veteran leader of the settlement movement and a lawmaker from the right-wing Jewish Home party, which has a strong following among religious settlers. The ministry plays a key role in building the settlements, and Ariel’s appointment was interpreted by some commentators as a sign that such construction would now be given a boost.
Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which has formed a bloc with the Likud, served notice Monday that his faction would “emphatically oppose” any settlement freeze.
Lieberman resigned his post to face charges of fraud and breach of trust, and the foreign portfolio is being held by Netanyahu pending the result of the court proceedings. If Lieberman is cleared, he is expected to return to the foreign ministry.
It is unclear whether the centrist parties in the new Israeli coalition will press for reining in settlement building or act as a counterweight to the pro-settlement hawks in the government.
Yesh Atid, the second-largest faction in parliament, has focused on domestic issues, such as lowering the cost of living and ending draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, and its demand for a resumption of talks with the Palestinians is given only brief mention near the bottom of its coalition agreement with Netanyahu.
But the party leader, Yair Lapid, has criticized generous government funding of settlements, and Ofer Shelah, the party whip in parliament, told reporters Monday that Yesh Atid would work to revive peace efforts. “We want Israel to be active on that front,” Shelah said, adding as the second largest party, “we intend to use that power to help rejuvenate the peace process.”
Tzipi Livni, the new justice minister, has been appointed chief negotiator with the Palestinians, though her work is to be guided by a ministerial committee on the peace process that includes Netanyahu and Yaalon. A former foreign minister who heads the small Hatnua faction, Livni campaigned for a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, and has pledged to put peace efforts high on the agenda of the new government.