OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel’s prime minister Tuesday added his first coalition partner for a new government, agreeing to bring in a rival to oversee contacts with the Palestinians in what could signal a new approach by the hard-line leader.
Under Tuesday’s deal, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will serve as justice minister in the next Israeli government, in charge of peace efforts with the Palestinians. Livni, who led peace talks four years ago, has a good relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Her party, HaTnuah, which campaigned for renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians, is the first party to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition.
Standing alongside Livni, the premier vowed to make a serious attempt at peace under his next government.
“The country needs a wide and stable government to promote the peace process,” he said, vowing to pursue his stated goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “I hope we find a Palestinian partner,” he said.
Netanyahu, who has come under heavy criticism, both at home and abroad, for the deadlock in peace efforts during his previous term, has promised to take a more aggressive approach under his next government.
But he has given no details on whether he is prepared to make any new concessions, and it remained unclear whether Livni’s addition to his Cabinet would help lure the Palestinians back to negotiations.
“What is important is the policies that will be adopted and implemented by the incoming Israeli government,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top adviser to Abbas. He said that if Netanyahu stuck to his policies of building settlements on occupied land, “it’s better for Livni to search for another mission.”
As foreign minister, Livni served as the chief negotiator with the Palestinians under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. While both sides have said they made great progress during that time, the talks collapsed in late 2008 and have remained virtually frozen since Netanyahu took office early the following year.
The Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Netanyahu while he continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
The Palestinians claim both areas, along with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, for their future state.
The Palestinians also want negotiations to resume from the point where they broke off under Olmert and Livni.
Olmert has said he offered a near total withdrawal from the West Bank and shared control over Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has said those concessions were far too generous and that new negotiations should begin without any preconditions.
He also has claimed that even when he imposed a partial freeze on settlement construction, the Palestinians did not enter substantive negotiations.
But after four years of deadlock, the international community has grown impatient with the Israeli leader. In a sign of the international disapproval, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in November in favor of an independent Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Although largely symbolic, the vote signified an international endorsement of key Palestinian demands on future borders.
The deal was Netanyahu’s first coalition agreement since a Jan. 22 election. He still remains far short of forming a majority coalition government.