Barak pledges to be peacemaker as he takes prime minister’s oath

JERUSALEM, July 6 (JTA) — Ehud Barak has been sworn in as Israel’s 10th prime minister, following a special Knesset session in which he pledged peacemaking as his government’s top priority. Following Barak’s address Tuesday and nearly five hours of speeches by other legislators, the new Israeli government and policy guidelines were approved by the Knesset. The swearing-in ceremony formalized the creation of the 28th government of Israel, which includes seven political parties representing 75 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators. The parties represented in his government include his own One Israel bloc (with 26 Knesset seats), Shas (17), Meretz (10), Yisrael Ba’Aliyah (6), Center (6), National Religious Party (5) and the United Torah Judaism bloc (5). In his speech outlining the government guidelines, Barak called on regional leaders to pursue peace. “The government’s objective is to simultaneously work toward advancing peace on all fronts, without compromising on any security needs or essential Israeli interests,” Barak said, as Israel’s president, top army officials and other dignitaries looked on from the visitors gallery. “I call on all leaders of the region to stretch out their hand to our outstretched hand, and bring about a peace of the brave in the region.” Forging peace with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon are of equal importance to Israel, Barak said. His comments were viewed as an attempt to quell Palestinian fears that he will give priority to peace with Syria. The 57-year-old former army chief made a direct appeal to Syrian President Hafez Assad to resume negotiations with Israel. “We were difficult and bitter foes on the battlefield. The time has come for a secure and brave peace,” Barak said. Barak reiterated his campaign promise to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon within a year. He also pledged to work with the Palestinian Authority to reach an agreement that would allow for “co-existence, freedom, prosperity and good neighborly relations.” In the campaign prior to his overwhelming election victory in May, Barak had run a relentless campaign attacking Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance in office. But his remarks to the outgoing premier on Tuesday struck a conciliatory note, touching on their shared past in an elite army commando unit, in which Netanyahu had served under Barak. “As someone who accompanied the Netanyahu family over the years, and this includes Benjamin Netanyahu, I hope and believe that we will learn to be friends one day in the future,” Barak said. Netanyahu, who stepped down as Likud leader following his electoral defeat, resigned from the Knesset before Barak was sworn in. In his parting remarks, the outgoing prime minister wished his successor and the opposition leader “success in each of your roles.” In the ensuing Knesset speeches, Barak got a taste of the opposition awaiting him. Ariel Sharon, who assumed the Likud leadership until party elections are held in September, was quick to assume the role of opposition leader and assail the new Israeli prime minister. He accused Barak of being propelled by personal political interests during the seven weeks of coalition negotiations and cautioned the new leader against reverting to the policies of the previous Labor-led government. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, head of the secular Shinui Party, also attacked Barak, likening his coalition building to a bidding auction. He also assailed Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, the newly designated education minister, accusing him of reneging on his earlier declaration not to be part of a government that also includes fervently Orthodox parties. Among Barak’s first initiatives after taking office, he plans to prepare legislation to expand his Cabinet from 18 to 24 ministers. The basic law on the government presently allows a maximum of 18 Cabinet members, but Barak is expected to win Knesset passage of the bill.

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