Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nominated to form a coalition after winning the most Knesset seats in elections, said stopping Iran from building nuclear arms would be the government’s foremost challenge.
“We have many missions to deal with,” Netanyahu said in Jerusalem after being chosen by President Shimon Peres. “But first we must maintain security, and the first task is to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu has 28 days to form a government and can ask for an additional two weeks if he fails to put a coalition together in that time. His choice of partners may influence policy on the economy, Iran and settlement construction in the West Bank.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday that Washington is ready for direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program as soon as the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes a commitment to negotiate.
Iran has told United Nations monitors it’s installing new centrifuges at its Natanz facility that can enrich more uranium in less time, according to a restricted International Atomic Energy Agency document circulated to members last week.
“While the world is discussing where and when the next meeting with Iran will be, Iran is rapidly advancing toward obtaining a nuclear bomb,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on Jan. 31. “The international community cannot allow Iran to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.”
“Last night I called on all the factions to join with me in as broad a national unity government as possible, that would unite our public in this decisive moment of our history,” Netanyahu told the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem today. “The highest priority facing a national unity government is stopping the nuclear armament of Iran,” Netanyahu said, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
The prime minister’s Likud-Beitenu list won 31 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in Jan. 22 elections, while the centrist Yesh Atid won 19. The Labor Party, campaigning on promises of fairer distribution of wealth, came in third while the pro-settlement Jewish Home was fourth. In the past two decades, leaders have typically taken between 20 and 50 days to form coalitions, according to the Israel Democratic Institute.
“I hope that the work will be concluded quickly,” Peres said at the press conference. “Israel needs diplomatic and economic stability so that the government can make the necessary decisions which are on the agenda. The challenges are many, serious and urgent.”
After exit polls were published on election day, Netanyahu called Yesh Atid’s leader, former television host Yair Lapid, and told him that together they “could do very great things.”
Representatives from Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu will officially begin coalition negotiations today, Israel’s Army Radio said.
Lapid on Jan. 30 recommended that Peres choose Netanyahu to form a government. He said that what Israel needs is a government “that divides the burden equally and will resume peace negotiations,” according to an e-mailed statement.
Lapid’s platform, which calls for drafting ultra-Orthodox rabbinical students into the army in addition to the secular population and ultimately bringing them into the workforce, has caused concern among the religious parties that Netanyahu’s Likud traditionally takes into its coalitions.
Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party with 11 seats, pleaded with Peres to help the nation find common ground on the draft issue. “This is not a coalition matter or a governmental matter but something far deeper than that which can undo one of the things that binds us together as a society,” Shas leader Ovadia Yosef told Peres, according to an e-mailed statement from the president’s office.
Netanyahu said yesterday his new government will work to limit ultra-Orthodox draft deferment, create more jobs, and strengthen the economy. He pledged to pursue peace and urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations.
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who has repeatedly promoted the need to have the ultra-Orthodox work to shore up growth, has said the first thing the new coalition will have to do is cut the budget deficit. Fischer, who resigned on Jan. 29, agreed to stay on until June 30 to oversee the next budget.