Peres addresses new Knesset for first time since election

President Shimon Peres urged Israel’s new parliament to make peace efforts with the Palestinians its top priority as MPs convened on Tuesday for their first session since a February 10 election.

“To conclude negotiations with the Palestinians during this parliamentary tenure” is the most important challenge facing Israel, the Jewish state’s octagenarian elder statesman said in a speech before the 120-seat house.

“Distinguished Arab leaders have told me that a peace accord with the Palestinians would be recognised as a regional peace agreement that includes Israel,” he said.

“Peace will create a new economic reality – for us and for our neighbours.  It will enable both of us to close social gaps,” the Nobel peace laureate said.

Peres also called on the new parliament to take action on discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens.

“Our relations with our Arab citizens call for immediate action,” he said. “We must be ever conscious that Arab citizens are treated as equals to Jewish citizens, for discrimination is contrary to our values.”

Peres’s speech was the keynote of the inaugural session after the February 10 election which saw a marked shift to the right led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Netanyahu, the hawkish former premier, was tasked by Peres last week with forming the next government and has until April 3 to cobble together a coalition of at least 61 MPs.

Although he can in theory count on support from fellow right-wingers for a 65-member bloc in the Knesset, he is widely believed to prefer a broader coalition that would have a better chance of lasting in the notoriously unstable world of Israeli politics.

Peres again urged the 59-year-old Bibi, as Netanyahu is widely known in Israel, to work towards a broad alliance.

“Most of parties voiced a clear preference for a broad national unity government. This is also my request,” he said.

Up to now the centrist Kadima and centre-left Labour have rebuffed his appeals for them to join the new government, increasing the chances of a narrow right-wing coalition that is likely to put Israel at odds with its main ally Washington, where President Barack Obama has vowed to vigorously pursue peace talks.

Israel and the Palestinians relaunched their peace negotiations to great fanfare at a conference in the United States in November 2007, but the talks made little progress since and have been on ice since the December-January Gaza war.

Addressing the 120 members of the new Knesset who were sworn in on Tuesday, Peres said that during their tenure, they “will have the option to choose between easy inaction and painful decisions.

“Act, don’t delay, because if Israel doesn’t decide, others will try to make decisions against it.”

The new parliament includes the following parties: centrist Kadima (28); right-wing Likud (27); ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (15); centre-left Labour (13); ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (5); the far-right settler parties National Union (4) and Habbayit Hayehudi (3); the Arab-Jewish communist Hadash (4); two Arab parties United Arab List Taal (4) and Balad (3); and left-wing Meretz (3).

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