Netanyahu Takes Over As Israel's Prime Minister

In Israel, conservative Benjamin Netanyahu has been sworn in as prime minister — an office he held 10 years ago. In an address to parliament, Netanyahu warned of the threat from Iran; and he tried to persuade skeptical Palestinian officials that his right-leaning coalition is interested in peace. But Palestinian leaders in the West Bank noted Netanyahu made no reference to a two-state solution to the conflict.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Israel, conservative Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister last night. Today, he returns to the office he held a decade ago. In his first speech to parliament, Netanyahu warned of the threat from Iran, and he tried to persuade skeptical Palestinians that his right-leaning coalition is interested in peace. But that first overture didn't go down well with Palestinian leaders. They criticized the new prime minister for making no reference to a future Palestinian state. From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Netanyahu's return to the prime minister's office sees him again facing a daunting array of challenges, from a worsening Israeli economy, ongoing tensions with Hamas in Gaza and deep concern here over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In a speech to parliament, Netanyahu asked Israelis to trust him in this time of crisis. He said Israel seeks full peace with the Arab and Muslim world, but warned of threats from extremist Islam. And in a reference to Iran, he said the biggest threat to the Jewish state and the world is, quote, "a radical regime armed with a nuclear weapon."

He also told the Palestinians in the West Bank he's ready to talk.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): (Through translator) I am telling the leaders of the Palestinian Authority if you really want peace it is possible to reach peace. To the Palestinian Authority, the government under my direction will work toward peace on three tracks: economic, security and political.

WESTERVELT: But the Palestinian Authority leadership quickly and sharply rejected the overture as inadequate.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief negotiator, Palestinian Authority): To talk about peace and being a partner while he wants to continue this (unintelligible) activity and not even mention the two-state solution.

WESTERVELT: Saeb Erekat called Netanyahu's speech a missed opportunity. The Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator said Netanyahu is not serious about working toward a two-state solution. He said it's all just vague talk of economic peace.

Mr. EREKAT: He's obliged to declare openly and in unequivocal terms that he accepts the establishment of a Palestinian independent, viable state. He failed to mention any of them. I want (unintelligible) me that he's going to be my partner, but if he wants to continue the vagueness and continue the occupation, I'm afraid this will not make a partnership for making peace.

WESTERVELT: President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear they see advancement of a two-state solution as a Mideast priority. Netanyahu's coalition is a fragile mix of secular right-wing and ultraorthodox religious parties and the Centrist Labor Party. It's also the largest in Israeli history after Netanyahu added ministerial portfolios to appease members of his own Likud Party.

In her first address as leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima Party, blasted the new government as bloated with ministers of nothing.

Netanyahu's most controversial appointment was tapping Israel Our Homeland leader Avigdor Lieberman as the new foreign minister. Lieberman ran on a platform calling for a loyalty oath for citizenship, a clear slap at Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens.

He's also made provocative statements that have alienated Israel's few Muslim allies in the region. For example, on the floor of parliament last fall, Lieberman said Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, quote, "can go to hell."

Professor GIDEON DORON (Politics, Tel Aviv University): His image is terrible. Of course it's a downside.

WESTERVELT: Israeli political analyst Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University says he sees Netanyahu and his foreign minister clashing with the Obama administration over how to deal with Iran and on talks with the Palestinians.

Prof. DORON: Netanyahu believes that what is important for them is the economic dimension. But I think there's going to be friction, of course. If the settlers inside the government, then you will find out that they will get the budgets to expand their settlements. So that's, be definition, is going to create frictions.

WESTERVELT: But some diplomats and Israeli analysts predict that Prime Minister Netanyahu will work hard to avoid tensions with Washington, perhaps by reopening peace overtures to Syria and by making it clear that he, not his ultranationalist foreign minister, makes the key policy decisions.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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