JERUSALEM — Israel is making a dramatic departure from the path toward peace that it began taking at the 1993 Oslo peace accords as Benjamin Netanyahu was set to officially become prime minister today, backed by a religious-right coalition that is pledged to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu's first government policy statement, released prior to today's planned installation of his Cabinet, promises to continue Arab-Israeli peace negotiations launched by the outgoing Labor-led government, but with far tougher Israeli positions than in the past.
The guidelines explicitly oppose Palestinian sovereignty and the return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank or Gaza; and any Palestinian political activity that would undermine Israel's "exclusive sovereignty claim" in Jerusalem.
They also insist that preservation of "Israeli sovereignty over the Golan would be the basis for an arrangement" with Syria - a reversal of Israel's previous position that Golan territory could be ceded for peace.
Despite this hard-line stance, Likud party leader Netanyahu's apparent appointment of two of his party's moderates, David Levy and retired general Yitzhak Mordechai, to the top posts of foreign affairs and defense, appeared designed to give his new government a moderate image before the international community, which is concerned about how Israel's shift to the right will impact the peace process.
However, hard-line Likud leader Ariel Sharon appeared likely to get a top position in Netanyahu's cabinet.
In drafting his government's official guidelines, Netanyahu attempted to dodge political minefields on issues such as the West Bank Jewish settlement policy, by resorting to vague diplomatic language.
For instance, the new guidelines promise to retain the settlements' "affinity" with Israel in any permanent peace arrangement - without explicitly advocating settlement expansion.
Similarly, the guidelines do not explicitly repudiate the 1993 Oslo accord, which many Likud party leaders ardently oppose. But the statement makes only an indirect reference to Israel's signed Oslo commitment to reach a permanent peace settlement by 1999, stating: "The government will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, with the intent of reaching a permanent arrangement, on the condition that Palestinians fulfill all their commitments fully."
The Netanyahu guidelines also pledge to use the Israel's military and security forces "to act against the threat of terrorism everywhere" - a statement that Palestinians may view as an encroachment on the security responsibilities they were granted in self-rule areas by the Oslo accords.
There was no immediate official reaction from the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. But Saeb Erakat, the minister for municipal affairs in the Palestinian government, called on Netanyahu to "continue the peace process with determination so that the peace message will be stronger than the message of violence."
Other Palestinian spokesmen have adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards Netanyahu, while also warning of an escalation in violence if the peace process doesn't move forward.
Responding to the possible minefields hidden in the new guidelines, US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said, "We don't need to focus on the obstacles, there are plenty of obstacles ... We need to focus on the objectives and the horizons.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear [how] he is approaching the peace process, and we have made it clear we will be walking with him every step of the way just as we have with the previous government."