JERUSALEM — Ten years after being ousted as prime minister by Israeli voters looking for a more conciliatory leader, conservative Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power Tuesday as the head of a hawkish coalition government that will be a pivotal player in President Barack Obama's push to stabilize the Middle East.
Whether it comes to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, rejuvenating stagnant peace talks with the Palestinians or brokering a diplomatic breakthrough with Syria, Israel's new leaders will be crucial to success for the Obama administration.
Netanyahu, 59, faces an immediate challenge in assuaging skeptical world leaders who worry that the new prime minister's combative style will undermine America's diplomatic efforts and fuel another spiral of violence in the Middle East.
In an unusually blunt interview with The Atlantic magazine, Netanyahu charged that Iran was a "messianic apocalyptic cult" with nuclear ambitions and a "grave danger" to the world.
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European leaders have been especially critical of Israel because of its recent 22-day military offensive, which ravaged the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and prompted a brewing feud over the threatened demolition of Palestinian homes in especially contentious parts of East Jerusalem.
"We are not happy with some of the steps of the Israeli government, namely construction works close to Jerusalem, but also access to Gaza, which is today very limited," Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the presidency of the European Union, told the country's newspaper Lidove Noviny in Tuesday's edition. "The new Israeli government has not raised much excitement either."
Of particular concern to world leaders is Netanyahu's long-standing opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the guiding principle for international diplomats since Israel was established in 1948. Netanyahu refuses to accept that basic premise and favors giving Palestinians limited powers.
On Tuesday, before he was sworn in as prime minister, Netanyahu sought to reassure skeptics by vowing to engage in peace talks with the Palestinians.
"We do not want to control another people. We do not want to rule the Palestinians," Netanyahu said in a speech to the Israeli parliament. "In the final agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority to govern themselves, except for those that threaten the existence or security of the state of Israel."
Netanyahu vowed to push his "economic peace" plan by helping to revive the stagnant West Bank economy and embracing U.S.-led efforts to professionalize the fractured Palestinian Authority security services.
For Netanyahu, peace talks with the Palestinians are subordinate to his concern about Iran's largely unchecked nuclear program. He called Iran's nuclear ambitions and "extreme Islam" the greatest danger to Israel and the world.
In a rare interview with an American journalist before he took office, Netanyahu said that along with fixing the economy, blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions should be one of Obama's two "great missions."
"You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs," Netanyahu told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. "When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."
Israel has shown over the last 18 months that it's willing to weather international condemnation and attack perceived threats in the region. In September 2007, it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site. This January, Israeli fighters reportedly attacked a weapons convoy in Sudan. Both attacks help feed the perception that Israel is willing to strike Iranian nuclear sites if it thinks that it has no other choice.
Hours before Netanyahu was sworn in Tuesday, the Israeli military killed three Palestinians who it said were trying to plant explosives along the Israel-Gaza border. After the attack, Gaza militants fire three crude rockets into southern Israel, a reminder of the unresolved dangers coming from the Gaza Strip.
In his final weeks, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried unsuccessfully to secure a prisoner exchange to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier whom Gaza militants have held for more than 1,000 days.
Olmert hoped that Israel's recent military offensive would rattle the militant group Hamas and force it to comply with Israeli demands. However, the offensive appears to have done more damage to Israel's own international reputation than to Hamas' standing.
Khalil Shikaki, the most respected Palestinian pollster, said that support for Hamas had grown since the Gaza offensive while backing for Palestinian moderates had waned.
For only the second time in two years of polling, Shikaki's most recent survey showed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh narrowly edging out pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the government's top post.
Most troubling to Shikaki was a rise in popular Palestinian support for attacks on Israel, which rose above 50 percent.
Palestinians said they'd oppose resuming peace talks with Israel unless Netanyahu halted the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. No Israeli government has frozen settlement construction in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, however, and Netanyahu is unlikely to take that step unless he receives serious pressure from Obama and other Western leaders.
"Things look gloomy and the future looks bleak from a Palestinian perspective," Shikaki said.
While a growing number of political pundits are urging Obama to end American isolation of Hamas, Netanyahu is among those who thought that the Gaza offensive shouldn't have ended without toppling the Islamist rulers.
That idea also was backed by Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist hard-liner who's taking over as Israel's foreign minister.
If Gaza militants continue to fire crude rockets into southern Israel, Netanyahu and Leiberman might be even less wary than Olmert was of sending soldiers into the isolated Mediterranean strip.
World leaders are concerned about how much influence Lieberman will have in the new government. He won surprising support from Israeli voters by pushing a controversial plan to impose a loyalty oath aimed at Israel's Arab minority that would strip them of voting rights if they refused to take part.
Lieberman's sway could be tempered by the inclusion of the center-left Labor Party in the new coalition. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who pulled Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 2000 and came the closest to brokering a peace deal with the Palestinians, agreed to stay on as defense minister in the new government.
Barak, who brought Netanyahu's first term as prime minister to an end in 1999 elections, could be a balance within the coalition, which also includes the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which favors settlement expansion and increased benefits for Israel's poor, religious families.
Some political analysts worry that the internal divisions will end up hobbling the government and bringing it to a swift end.
With Israeli-Palestinian talks stagnating, there's widespread speculation that Obama and Netanyahu could find more common ground on reaching a deal with Syria.
Turkish diplomats have been overseeing indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria for two years. The negotiations have helped Syria end its international isolation. The Obama administration already has sent diplomats to Damascus in what was seen as a first step in resuming normal ties with Syria's government.
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)
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