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Netanyahu: Israel is serious about peace

The hawkish prime minister, who presented his new government Tuesday, shows a distinct change in style and tactics – though not substance – since his 1996-99 term.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2009

An Israeli watched Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to parliament on Tuesday. Mr. Netanyahu begins his second tenure as Israel's leader this week.

Dan Balilty/AP

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Tel Aviv

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu begins his second tenure as Israel's leader. Will this time be different?

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Nearly a decade after his rocky stint as prime minister ended in a landslide defeat, his inaugural speech Tuesday evening completed a comeback. But Israel's leader is still dogged by a legacy of diplomatic stagnation that unnerves both the international commuinty and Israelis – a legacy he sought to overcome in his address to parliament.

"Israel aspires to a full peace with the Arab world," he said, as he presented his new right-wing government. "I say to the Palestinians, 'If you really want peace, we can achieve peace.... We will conduct continuous negotiations.' "

Netanyahu's shift in emphasis from criticism of the peace process to stressing his desire to "engage" with new ideas stems in part from an ill-fated first go-round as premier, which observers say chastened the man known for his hubris.

The change, however, is more a function of style and tactics rather substance, say many analysts. While they say his worldview is still that of a pragmatic hawk who is skeptical about making concessions to Israel's Arab neighbors, observers point to a mellowed political style and a more carefully considered tactician.

"Netanyahu is still a very strong idealist," says Aviv Bushinsky, who served as Netanyahu's top media advisor during his first term. "I think he will be more cautious before making decisions. Even if he reaches the same decisions, he'll prepare the ground better."

Last time: a wunderkind bent on opposing peace

When Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996, he had a reputation as a brash political wunderkind bent on putting the brakes on the Oslo peace process adopted by the administration of former US President Bill Clinton.

Despite that tension, Netanyahu compounded the strained relations with Israel's all-important ally by publicly meeting with Christian-right evangelicals like Jerry Falwell – prominent opponents of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians – on a US visit in 1998 aimed at advancing the peace process.

The contrast in his approach to relations with the Obama administration has been telling. Recognizing that in order to confront Iran he cannot afford another rift with the White House, he has stressed his desire to "engage" with new ideas. And though he doesn't see eye to eye with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the urgency of resolving the Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu has sought to smooth over those differences by stressing the points in common with the Obama administration.

But Netanyahu comes into office at a time when Iran's growing regional influence and nuclear aspirations figure just as high on Israel's regional agenda – if not higher than – Arab-Israeli peace.

Identifying the spread of "extremist Islam" as the source of Israel's security "crisis," Netanyahu addressed Iran directly in his speech Tuesday: "We won't let any person or state to put a question mark over our existence."

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, argues that containing Iran has become a precondition for progress on the peace process.