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Middle East

Israel MPs gather to swear in new coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) delivers a speech before the swearing in of his new government on March 18, 2013 at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON

JERUSALEM: Israel's parliament held a session on Monday to formally swear in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new pro-settler coalition government, just two days before a visit by US President Barack Obama.

The session at the Knesset, or parliament, opened at 1300 GMT with a series of formal speeches and was to culminate in the mid-evening when Israel's 33rd government will be sworn in.

After more than 40 days of tortuous negotiations, Netanyahu on Saturday announced he had put together a coalition with a majority of 68 within the 120-seat Knesset.

Although the lineup includes two centrist parties -- Yesh Atid (19 seats) and HaTnuah (six seats) -- which want to renew peace talks, it is dominated by the hawkish Likud-Beitenu (31 seats) and its new national-religious ally, Jewish Home (12 seats), a far-right faction that is party of choice for settlers.

Addressing MPs, Netanyahu thanked the country for electing him as premier for a third term and pledged to represent all of Israel's citizens, as well as defend them from regional threats such as Iran's nuclear programme.

"The top priority of the new government is the defence of the security of the state and its citizens," he said, adding that Israel faced "very great threats" from Iran and Syria.

He also gave a nod towards the moribund peace process, which was scarcely mentioned in the coalition agreements, saying his new government would be "ready for compromises in exchange for real peace" and would talk with any Palestinian partner who would negotiate "in good faith."

Ahead of Obama's visit, which begins on Wednesday, the White House has played down expectations of a relaunch of direct peace talks, which broke down weeks after they were launched in September 2010.

Resuming negotiations is unlikely to be a priority for the new Israeli government, which was elected largely on socio-economic issues and which counts a strong showing of ministers with an openly pro-settlement agenda.

Ahead of the session, the newcomers were quick to pin their colours to the mast.

"The era of Ehud Barak is over. The new government will strengthen settlement," said incoming deputy defence minister Danny Danon.

Barak stepped down as defence minister last week to be replaced by Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff who strongly supports the settlement enterprise and who has been outspoken in his opposition to a construction freeze.

Another new face in government is housing minister Uri Ariel, himself an ultra-nationalist settler from Jewish Home, who at the weekend told the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot, his aim was to increase the number of Israelis living in the occupied West Bank.

"Today there are 360,000 and I want for there to be many, many more," he said. "Will I double the number of settlements? No. Will I provide for natural growth? Yes."

Asked how such construction would impact on the prospects of a Palestinian state, he said: "There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- Israel."

The defence and housing ministries play a central role in approving and advancing Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Danon, who is one of the most hawkish MPs in Likud, was quick to dismiss any talk of a renewal of peace talks during Obama's visit.

"We want peace but whether you look to the left or right in this region, you realise there is no partner," he said.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu ran on a joint electoral ticket with Likud, said his party would "strongly oppose" any US-led pressure for a new settlement freeze.

Sources close to Yaalon also dismissed the prospect of any new gestures to the Palestinians during Obama's visit, telling public radio he would oppose any move to freeze settlements, to release prisoners or to transfer any land to Palestinian Authority control.

Opposition parties were quick to denounce the new government's pro-settler bent.

"This rightwing government is going to continue to waste billions of shekels on the settlements," Zahava Gal-On, head of the leftwing Meretz party, told the radio.

 

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