A new era in the Middle East was launched Tuesday night, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative-religious coalition partners took their oaths of office under governing guidelines nearly universally condemned in the Arab world.
Despite a soothing inaugural speech calling on Israel’s Arab neighbors to “widen the circle of peace” and enter negotiations with no preconditions, Netanyahu was lambasted by Arab commentators from Algeria to the Persian Gulf, even before he made his first official move.
“Let us conduct direct negotiations for peace, negotiations that will carry the Middle East to an era of stability and prosperity, negotiations without preconditions,” Netanyahu said from the podium of the Knesset.
“That is the key: There are no preconditions! Each side can present its concepts and positions without forcing the other side to accept these conditions in advance,” Netanyahu said. “We can reach a real peace with our neighbors.”
The policy guidelines signed by the coalition partners are a considerable departure from the land-for-peace approach of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who left office last night with a warning to Netanyahu not to diverge from the path blazed by the out-going government.
“I fear, my friend the prime minister, that you will quickly discover that the platform on which you were elected cannot serve as a recipe for success and progress in the peace process,” Peres said in his farewell speech from the Knesset. “I hope you will continue to walk on the great path which has been prepared over the past four years.”
Netanyahu, who squeaked past Peres in elections three weeks ago, vowed to put Israeli security above everything and seek peace with fewer concessions and more safeguards, something the Israeli left and the Arab world say is a chimera.
The guidelines rule out a Palestinian state or “any foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River,” meaning the West Bank; oppose any right of Palestinians abroad to come live in the West Bank; declare that Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will be the basis for an arrangement with Syria; assert that Jerusalem shall never be shared; insist that the Israeli army will have complete freedom of action to fight terror and support further Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Arab world, splintered since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, this weekend will hold its first summit since then to confront the new Israeli government.