JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially assumed the reins of power in Israel on Wednesday, vowing to tackle the country's most pressing security issues but giving few details on how he plans to do so.
Netanyahu, joined by his 30-member Cabinet, told a ceremony that there was no time to waste at a time when the economy is in crisis and Israel faces threats like never before.
"We will have to take care of urgent matters in every major aspect of our lives, among them in education, in crime, in society. But ahead of everything are the economy and security," he said. "We face everyday troubles and we face troubles of the nation. We will have to roll up our sleeves and start to work right after we leave this building."
He spoke at a ceremony at the president's residence formally transferring power from the departing Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu, 59, who heads the hawkish Likud Party, did not address matters of war and peace in his brief statement. The ceremony came a day after parliament formally approved his coalition government.
Addressing parliament on Tuesday, Netanyahu promised to see "full peace" with the Arab and Muslim world, but he failed to explicitly endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state — a key goal of the U.S.
Instead, he promised the Palestinians would have "authority to rule themselves," appearing to go back to a decades-old notion that peace could be achieved through limited Palestinian authority.
His reluctance to embrace a Palestinian state, and his decision to appoint ultranationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman as his foreign minister, could put him at odds with an Obama administration eager to promote Mideast peace.
In Tuesday's speech, Netanyahu also spoke of the dangers of Islamic extremism, singling out Iran as Israel's biggest threat and urging the world to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Olmert told Wednesday's ceremony that he was leaving office with "pride and satisfaction" in his achievements but with regret for failing to reach key goals. Olmert resumed peace talks with the Palestinians after an eight-year lull. More than a year of direct negotiations failed to achieve any visible breakthroughs.
"I was not fortunate to fulfill my dream and achieve a real peace with our neighbors. We talked about things that we never dared talk about in the past. We made great progress but the work has not yet concluded," he said.
Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, told Netanyahu that his government must also make efforts in pursuit of peace.
"An Arab initiative for regional peace has been published and I know of no better alternative than peace for the entire region," said Peres, a Nobel peace laureate.
The initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by the 23-member Arab League, calls for a comprehensive Mideast peace accord in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israeli leaders have said the Arab initiative is a good basis for discussions, but objected to certain aspects, including a pullback from east Jerusalem. The area is home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
Netanyahu's 30 ministers were sworn in at a special session late Tuesday after parliament approved the new government by a 69-45 vote. The new Cabinet includes a heterogeneous group hailing from ultra-Orthodox parties, a hard-line religious party, a hawkish secular faction, along with Labor and Netanyahu's Likud.
To placate his new partners and his allies, Netanyahu created new ministerial positions — so many that parliament carpenters had to work overnight to enlarge the Cabinet's table.
Netanyahu's fractious first term, from 1996-1999, was marked by bad relations with the Palestinians, failed peacemaking with Syria, alienated allies, an inability to rein in an unruly Parliament and corruption allegations that didn't stick.