Matti Friedman
The Associated Press
March 31, 2009 - 12:00am

The new government taking power in Israel Tuesday supports expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank and does not explicitly endorse an independent Palestinian state, a course that could put the country at odds with the Obama administration.

Western officials are also concerned about incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's choice for foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose proposal to put citizens to loyalty tests is widely seen as a racist attack on Israel's Arab minority.

Israel's Knesset, or parliament, was swearing in Netanyahu and his 28 ministers at a special session Tuesday evening. The new Cabinet is an unwieldy and heterogeneous group hailing from ultra-Orthodox parties, a hard-line religious party, a hawkish secular faction, and the centrist Labor Party, along with Netanyahu's Likud.

To placate his new partners and his allies, Netanyahu created new ministerial positions _ so many that parliament carpenters had to work overnight to enlarge the Cabinet's table.

Facing the prospect of a clash with the Obama administration, Netanyahu has been busy remodeling his own image in recent weeks.

The establishment of a Palestinian state is a key U.S. goal.

After an election campaign in which he roundly criticized the outgoing government's peace talks with the Palestinians, he has softened his position, bringing Labor into what otherwise would have been a hard-line coalition and saying he would pursue peace with the country's Arab neighbors. However, he has been vague about his vision for peace.

During the campaign, he said he would focus peace efforts on developing the Palestinian economy, while leaving key issues such as final borders and the dispute over control of Jerusalem for the future. Last week, however, he said he would be a "partner in peace" with the Palestinians and discuss core issues.

Israelis and Palestinians greeted the new government with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Some were uncertain exactly what to make of it.

"I don't know if it's good. It's hopeful. I don't know if it's right wing, I don't know if its left-wing. It's something different," said Monica Haber of Nokdim, a West Bank settlement.

Nokdim's most famous resident is Lieberman, whose appointment as foreign minister would have been unthinkable several months ago.

One of the country's most polarizing politicians, Lieberman centered his successful election campaign on a proposal, widely seen as anti-Arab, to strip the citizenship of people who do not swear loyalty to the Jewish state. Lieberman was able to leverage his Yisrael Beitenu Party's strong election performance into control of the foreign ministry and other senior portfolios in the coalition government.

Not everyone in Nokdim seemed thrilled with the new government. Moshe Hacohen said international pressure has traditionally limited conservative governments' ability to maneuver.

"It's best not to make a big deal about anything, and just to do what you have to do," he said.

Yariv Oppenheimer, who heads the Israeli group Peace Now, said he was certain peace activists would be busy during Netanyahu's term.

"The new Israeli government is one of the most right-wing governments that we have had here in Israel. ... Unfortunately, we think that as a peace movement we are going to have a lot of work in the upcoming years to protest against this government," he said.

He did grant that "sometimes in Israel the right-wing government is doing the opposite and making peace and compromise."

It was a Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, who signed Israel's historic peace accord with Egypt, and another Likud prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who pulled Israeli settlers and troops out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005. After criticizing peace talks during the campaign, Netanyahu has now embraced them, though without saying he supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

Hamas, the Islamic group that took control of Gaza in 2007 and which remains officially dedicated to Israel's destruction, has said it sees no difference between Israeli governments. But Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said Tuesday that the new government will "increase the risk for the Palestinian people and the region."

"This racist and extreme government will lead the region from bad to worse," he said.


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