Israel's new government has taken office after a coalition agreement was signed last week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the new parliament that he was ready for "real peace" with the Palestinians.
The country's parliament, known as the Knesset, opened on Monday afternoon to formally swear in the new coalition government. The session, which began with a series of formal speeches, culminated in mid-evening when the parliament gave its seal of approval for the new administration.
Speaking to the delegates, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was elected for a third term in January's elections, thanked the country's citizens and promised to defend them from regional threats. He also extended an olive branch of sorts to the Palestinians, saying his government was "ready for compromises in exchange for real peace," and would talk to the Palestinians "in good faith."
But, Netanyahu said, Israel faced "very great threats" from Iran's nuclear program and the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has just entered its third year.
"The top priority of the new government is the defense of the security of the state and its citizens," he told MPs. "Our existence here cannot be taken for granted."
After weeks of wrangling, Israel's leading parties signed a coalition deal last Friday, which has a majority of 68 in the 120-seat Knesset. The new cabinet will have 22 members.
The coalition comprises four parties - Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu nationalist alliance, the pro-settler Jewish Home, the centrist Yesh Atid, and the Hatnuah party, another centrist party, of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
In January's elections, the centrist parties made considerable gains on Netanyahu's Likud, forcing him to leave his traditional, ultra-Orthodox allies out of the current coalition.
Netanyahu sealed the coalition agreement with just hours to spare before a deadline to do so. Had he failed to do so, another party leader would have been given the chance to form a government.
Monday's formalities come two days ahead of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories by US President Barack Obama, and on a day when the US refused to take part in a United Nations Human Rights Council Debate in Geneva on Israeli settlements and their effects on Palestinians.
The US has accused the panel of being biased against Israel. When discussion turned to the wider issue of human rights in the Palestinian Territories, the US ambassador, Eileen Donahoe said "the United States remains extremely troubled by this council's continued biased and disproportionate focus on Israel."
Ahead of his visit, Obama has said the purpose of his Middle East trip is to listen, rather than propose a political solution, and has ruled out demanding a construction freeze in Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
jr/pfd (dpa, AFP, Reuters)