, JERUSALEM, Mar 31 – Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s new premier on Tuesday, heading a predominantly right-wing cabinet that has sparked international concern over the future of troubled peace talks.
Returning to power 10 years after his first stint as prime minister, the 59-year-old Bibi, as he is popularly known, will present his government to parliament in the afternoon, with MPs expected to vote the cabinet in later.
Israel’s 32nd government promises to be one of its largest ever. Netanyahu rewarded his coalition partners so handsomely with portfolios that a new table has had to be ordered to accommodate the 30 or so ministers.
The 69-member coalition in the 120-seat Knesset will lean heavily to the right despite the presence of centre-left Labour, and will include his Likud party, ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, ultra-Orthodox Shas, and a small settler party.
Netanyahu has chosen as foreign minister the firebrand Avigdor Lieberman, a former bouncer and immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova who has been branded a "racist" by critics for his anti-Arab diatribes.
With Netanyahu, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, at the helm and Lieberman as Israel’s top diplomat, the international community has expressed alarm over the future of the already uncertain peace process, re-launched in November 2007 but making little progress since.
The European Union last week warned Israel of "consequences" if the new government does not commit itself to the principle of the two-state solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict, saying relations would become "very difficult."
US President Barack Obama meanwhile said that peace efforts under a Netanyahu cabinet were not getting any easier but were just as necessary.
One of the main issues is Netanyahu’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, a principle to which Israel committed itself under the 2003 international so-called roadmap for peace.
Netanyahu, who put the brakes on the Oslo peace process during his first term as premier in 1996-1999, says economic conditions should be improved in the occupied West Bank before negotiations take place on other issues.
But keen not to antagonise key ally Washington where Obama has vowed to vigorously pursue the hobbled peace talks, the new Israeli leader has said he will continue the negotiations.
"Peace… is a common and enduring goal for all Israelis and Israeli governments, mine included. This means I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for peace," Netanyahu told a Jerusalem conference last Wednesday.
"I think that the Palestinians should understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security, for the rapid development of the Palestinian economy."
Despite his hard-line rhetoric, Netanyahu signed several deals with the Palestinians under US pressure during his first term as premier, and some analysts in Israel say he would do so again if pressed by Washington.
Aware of discontent in the international community over a Netanyahu government, President Shimon Peres — Israel’s veteran statesman and a Nobel peace laureate — has sought to assuage concerns.
"The new government is bound by the decisions of the preceding one," Peres said on Sunday. "There will be a continuity and the continuation of peace negotiations."
"The government that will be formed will respect the engagements undertaken by the preceding cabinet," said Peres, who plans to launch an international media campaign after Tuesday’s swearing-in.