Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, on March 3, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, on March 3, 2013. Israel's new coalition government -- which includes a strong showing of pro-settlement hardliners -- will be sworn in on Monday, just two days before a top-level visit by US President Barack Obama. © Gali Tibbon - AFP/File
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, on March 3, 2013
Last updated: March 18, 2013

Israel's new coalition government to be sworn in

Israel's new coalition government, which includes a strong showing of pro-settlement hardliners, was to be sworn in on Monday, just two days before a visit by US President Barack Obama.

Following more than 40 days of tortuous negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday announced he had managed to piece together a new government with a majority of 68 within the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Although the line-up includes Yesh Atid (19 seats) and HaTnuah (six seats), which want to renew peace talks, it is dominated by the hawkish Likud-Beitenu (31 seats) and its new national-religious ally, Jewish Home (12 seats), a far-right faction that is the party of choice for settlers.

Israel's 33rd government was to be formally sworn in before parliament in a lengthy ceremony due to begin at 1300 GMT.

Although Likud's largest coalition partner is Yesh Atid, the new cabinet is predominantly right-wing with several key ministries handed to pro-settlement right-wingers who on Monday were quick to pin their colours to the mast.

"The era of Ehud Barak is over. The new government will strengthen settlement in Judaea and Samaria," said incoming deputy defence minister Danny Danon, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

Barak stepped down as defence minister last week and has been replaced by Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff from Netanyahu's right-wing Likud who is strongly pro-settlement and has vocally opposed any freeze on construction.

The defence and housing ministries, both of which have been handed to hardline settler supporters, play a central role in approving and advancing Israeli construction on Palestinian land seized during the 1967 Six Day War.

Another name popular with the settler lobby is incoming housing minister Uri Ariel, himself an ultra-nationalist settler from Jewish Home, which completely opposes a Palestinian state.

In a weekend interview with the top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Ariel said his aim was to see a large growth in the number of people living in the settlements.

"Today there are 360,000 and I want for there to be many, many more," he said. "Will I double the number of settlements? No. Will I provide for natural growth? Yes."

Asked how such construction would impact on the prospects of a Palestinian state, he said: "There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- Israel."

Danon, considered one of the most hawkish MPs in Likud, was quick to play down hopes of any breakthrough when Obama arrives for a three-day visit on Wednesday.

"The United States knows that there were elections in Israel and that a nationalist government was formed. We want peace but whether you look to the left or right in this region, you realise there is no partner," he said.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu which ran on a joint ticket with Likud in the January 22 elections, said his faction would "strongly oppose" any US-led attempt to drive a new settlement freeze.

"We are against the freezing of the settlements and also against unilateral gestures towards the Palestinians," he told reporters in comments broadcast on public radio.

"All of Yisrael Beitenu will categorically oppose any (construction) freeze."

Sources close to Yaalon also dismissed the prospect of any new gestures to the Palestinians during Obama's visit.

Speaking to public radio, they said the new defence minister was opposed to any move which would see the release of prisoners, a settlement freeze or the transfer of land to Palestinian Authority control.

Opposition parties were quick to denounce the new government's pro-settler bent.

"This right-wing government is going to continue to waste billions of shekels on the settlements," said Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party.

"The only difference between the new government and the previous one is that the ultra-Orthodox are out and the settlers are in," she told the radio.

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been in deep freeze for two-and-a-half years, with little prospect of them being renewed any time soon.

Despite the high-profile visit by Obama, his first since being elected president more than four years ago, the White House has been careful to play down expectations linked to a renewal of peace talks.

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