Netanyahu, super-sized Cabinet sworn in
Benjamin Netanyahu, taking office as Israeli prime minister amid heckling by leftist and Arab lawmakers, offered Tuesday to seek a “permanent arrangement” for limited Palestinian self-rule.
“We do not wish to rule another people,” the conservative leader declared in a speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Without endorsing the goal of sovereignty for the Palestinians, he said he favored an accord giving them “all the powers necessary to rule themselves, except those that would threaten Israel’s existence and security.”
His remarks reaffirmed a stance at odds with the Obama administration, which advocates continued negotiations to create an independent Palestinian state, and reflected Israel’s rightward shift in the Feb. 10 election. But his message was mostly conciliatory as he became prime minister for a second time.
Voicing support for a broader U.S. objective in the region, he said that Israel “today more than ever strives to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world.” He added: “That yearning is supported by a joint interest of Israel and the Arab states against the fanatical obstacle” of terrorism.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s longtime partner in peace talks, reacted with scorn. “This man doesn’t believe in peace, so how can we deal with him?” he said on Palestine Television.
Netanyahu spoke near the start of an often raucous session of the newly elected parliament. Six hours later, it ratified his appointments to a 38-member Cabinet, and they were sworn in along with him a few minutes before midnight.
His nationally televised address generated scant reaction in the chamber until he turned to domestic matters. From then on, heckling interrupted him frequently, starting as he lamented the decline of Israel’s educational standards and called for reform.
“This was the result of your doing,” declared Shelly Yacimovich, a lawmaker from the left-leaning Labor Party, interrupting him. As finance minister early in this decade, she said, Netanyahu cut education budgets, “and you’ll cut them again.”
Netanyahu spoke slowly and solemnly, looking tired after weeks of bargaining to assemble a ruling coalition. Besides his Likud Party, he gathered the support of three other right-wing parties, plus Labor. Together they hold 69 of the 120 seats in parliament.
To placate his new partners, he amassed the biggest Cabinet in Israel’s history. New ministerial positions were created, including one for “improving government service to the citizenry via the Internet” and five without precise duties. Carpenters worked through the night to finish an extension to the Cabinet table in the chamber in time for the ceremony.
As Netanyahu read out the names of his appointees, he was interrupted again.
“Seven, eight, nine. . . ,” a number of opposition lawmakers chanted as the list grew.
“Oh, they know how to count,” Netanyahu quipped, at first dismissing the protest over the super-sized government and its burden on the Treasury at a time of recession.
He grew visibly angry as the heckling continued, turning to parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin and imploring him to “maintain the honor of today’s stately event.”
“For three years I led the opposition and I never recall such contempt,” Netanyahu said.
Israelis are accustomed to rude political discourse, but such outbursts are rare at inaugurations. Tuesday’s disorder was a sign of the obstacles Netanyahu faces trying to sustain his parliamentary majority.
Rebelling against a deal Labor leader Ehud Barak struck with Netanyahu, five of Labor’s 13 lawmakers abstained from the vote to approve the government. Netanyahu picked up five votes from outside the coalition, but it appeared that part of Labor would break away and join the opposition.
Netanyahu needs Labor’s support to balance the clout of right-wing parties likely to oppose any concessions in his dealings with the United States or the Arab world. His previous stint as prime minister was cut short in 1999 when conservative allies abandoned him over an accord with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to share control over the volatile West Bank city of Hebron.