Sending conciliatory messages in all directions in his first speech since his election as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu issued ringing calls Sunday for harmony at home and peace with the Arabs.
“This evening I stretch out my hand in peace to all the Arab leaders and all of our neighbors, our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu declared.
“I call on you to join us on the road to real peace with security.”
Interrupted repeatedly by deafening chants of “Bibi! Bibi!,” the nickname by which he is commonly known, from a tumultuous throng of followers, Netanyahu also lauded his defeated opponent, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and declared that “the relations between the United States and Israel are strong as a rock.”
The speech, like the statements and positions coming from Netanyahu’s camp since he was proclaimed winner in Wednesday’s election by less than one percentage point, was unmistakably intended to assuage anxieties at home and abroad.
There are concerns that the conservative prime minister-elect and his coalition of religious and nationalist parties might reverse the progress toward a Middle East peace and worsen divisions at home.
“The government we will form in a few days, with God’s help, will strengthen the peaceful relations that have already been established with the Jordanian kingdom and with Egypt, and will continue the negotiations with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.
The emphatic pledges to build relations with Jordan and Egypt and to continue negotiations with the Palestinians were certain to be of some comfort to the Arabs, but the Arabs were likely to suspend judgment until Netanyahu formed his government.
King Hussein of Jordan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, are to meet in Jordan on Wednesday to discuss Israeli developments.
One of the first concrete tests of Netanyahu’s intentions will be whether he withdraws Israeli troops from Hebron on the West Bank, the last Palestinian city still under Israeli occupation. Peres said Sunday that Israel must abide by its pledge to pull out by mid-June, but that his government would not order the withdrawal.