JERUSALEM Mar 25 – Israeli premier-designate Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Wednesday to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians after its staunch ally Washington said such efforts were "critical."
"Peace is not the last goal. It 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," he told a Jerusalem conference.
Netanyahu spoke the day after the centre-left Labour party voted to join his right-leaning cabinet, a move that he hopes will head off any tension with a Washington that has vowed to vigorously pursue the peace process.
"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."
Bibi, as Netanyahu is popularly known, now has the necessary number of MPs to form a government, although his party is due to continue talks with small right-wing factions on Wednesday.
The Likud party leader, who previously held the post of prime minister in 1996-1999, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state for the moment, saying economic conditions in the occupied West Bank must first be improved.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP: "Building peace needs actions and not words."
"Any Israeli government that freezes settlement construction and accepts a settlement based on a two-state solution and to negotiate on all final status issues, including Jerusalem, will be considered a partner for peace," he said, listing issues opposed by several members of Netanyahu’s cabinet.
US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that peace efforts with a Netanyahu-led government were not getting any "easier" but that they were "just as necessary."
"It is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security," Obama told a press conference. "The status quo is unsustainable."
Obama was asked about prospects for peace with a Netanyahu cabinet, whose chosen foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has been dubbed a racist by critics because of repeated diatribes against Israeli Arabs.
Palestinians hailed Obama’s comments, saying they showed that the new American administration is "serious about the peace process," president Mahmud Abbas’s spokesman told AFP.
Netanyahu is now assured of forming a government after Labour delegates voted to back a coalition deal despite opposition from many members of the veteran centre-left party that launched the Oslo peace talks.
He now has a 66-member coalition in the 120-seat parliament – 27 from Likud, 15 from ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, 11 from ultra-Orthodox Shas and 13 from Labour.
Netanyahu has been trying to build a broad coalition with a better chance of surviving the notoriously unstable world of Israeli politics and not ruffle Washington’s feathers on peace.
In their coalition agreement, Netanyahu and Barak remained vague on the issue, saying the cabinet will work "to reach a comprehensive regional peace agreement" and respect previous international agreements Israel has signed.
They did not mention the word Palestinians or address the issue of a Palestinian state.
And discord between the partners emerged on Wednesday.
"Mr Netanyahu is conscious of Obama’s positions and he understands that one must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is at the heart of a regional peace arrangement," Labour MP Yitzhak Herzog told army radio.
"We will work toward peace in the Middle East."
But Likud MP Israel Katz said the party "will not give up neither on the Golan nor on Jerusalem and will neither accept a Palestinian state."
Despite his hardline rhetoric, Netanyahu signed several deals with the Palestinians during his first stint as premier. But he also authorised a major expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Army radio said that as part of his coalition deal with Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu pledged to expand settlements in a highly-contentious area of the West Bank just outside annexed east Jerusalem.