Netanyahu chairs first cabinet meeting

After less than a week in power, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over his first cabinet meeting to discuss defence policies and jump-start stalled peace talks. This is the largest-ever cabinet for Israel.


AFP - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chaired his first cabinet meeting on Sunday, after less than a week in power dominated by his top diplomat sparking concern over the fate of peace talks.

Vowing to "pull up our sleeves and get to work," Netanyahu said his government will set its peace and defence policies within weeks.

"In the coming weeks, we will complete a policy for the advancement of peace and defence," he said at the start of the first get-together of Israel's largest ever cabinet.

The size of the right-leaning government is such that it required the installation of a new table large enough to accommodate the 30 ministers including the premier along with a slew of deputies.

The remarks are the first public statements by Bibi, as he is popularly known, since he assumed office on Wednesday.

Since then, the focus has been on firebrand Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who sparked controversy as soon as he took office last week with his comments on peace and then his grilling by police in a corruption probe.

In the foreign ministry handover ceremony on Wednesday, Lieberman said that the new right-leaning government was not bound by a US-backed 2007 agreement to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

"There is only one document that binds us and it is not the Annapolis conference," Lieberman said. "Only the roadmap."

"We will never agree to skip any of the stages -- and there are 48 of them -- and go straight to the last stage on negotiations on a permanent agreement."

The roadmap is a step-by-step international peace plan launched in 2003 under which Israel bound itself to the principle of a Palestinian state -- a concept that Netanyahu opposes.

It calls for Israel and the Palestinians to take a series of steps -- among them a freeze on Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and an end to violence -- eventually leading to talks on a final peace deal.

In Annapolis, the two sides agreed to jump to its final phase and relaunch peace talks on core issues while at the same time implementing the other phases of the plan, although the talks have produced little visible progress since.

Lieberman's comments provoked a furious reaction from the Palestinians, who called the firebrand an "obstacle to peace."

On Thursday, the Soviet-born former nightclub bouncer poured oil on the fire, rejecting any withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

He was then questioned by police for seven hours on Thursday and five hours on Friday as part of a probe into corruption, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust.

Netanyahu's return to the prime minister's chair 10 years after his first term in office ended had already triggered concern among Palestinians and some in the international community over the future of the peace process.

The new premier is opposed to the two-state solution that foresees the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, saying that the economy in the occupied West Bank needs to improve first.

He has repeatedly made clear that his top priority was arch-foe Iran's controversial nuclear programme, which Israel and Washington believe is aimed at manufacturing atomic weapons, a charged Tehran has repeatedly denied.

Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East's sole nuclear-armed nation, something it has never confirmed or denied.

Netanyahu's stance on the peace process is at odds with the position of Israel's key ally Washington, where President Barack Obama has vowed to vigorously pursue a settlement to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution.


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