Image: Benjamin Netanyahu
Emil Salman  /  AFP - Getty Images
The incoming prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, tells a financial conference in Jerusalem Wednesday that his government will pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
updated 3/25/2009 7:55:07 AM ET 2009-03-25T11:55:07

Israel's incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Wednesday promised to resume peace talks with the Palestinians after he takes office, saying his government will be a "partner for peace."

His comments came as Human Rights Watch released a report that said Israel fired white phosphorous shells indiscriminately over densely populated areas of Gaza in what it says amounts to a war crime.

Netanyahu delivered his pledge a day after President Barack Obama says the U.S. will push for creation of a Palestinian state, despite Netanyahu's skepticism about the negotiations.

Netanyahu announced that he will seek parliamentary approval for his new coalition next week. Then he would take over as head of a government dominated by hawkish parties, but potentially moderated by the presence of the centrist Labor Party.

Labor has been at the forefront of Mideast peace efforts, while Netanyahu has an image of rebuffing peace moves that require Israeli concessions. To entice a reluctant Labor into his coalition, Netanyahu had to promise to pursue peace with the Palestinians but stopped short of pledging to work for creation of a Palestinian state — a cornerstone of peace plans for more than a decade.

In the campaign before the Feb. 10 election that propelled him toward the premiership, Netanyahu disparaged talks on a peace treaty, saying the proper approach was to first build up the Palestinian economy.

Palestinian leaders rejected that, and during her visit here this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a point of calling for creation of a Palestinian state at every opportunity.

That set the outline of a possible head-on clash between Israel and its most powerful ally, but Netanyahu, in a speech Wednesday before a joint Israeli-Palestinian economic conference, insisted this won't happen.

Peace is a "common and enduring goal for all Israelis and Israeli governments, mine included," Netanyahu said. "This means I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for peace."

He pledged, "The Palestinians should understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security, for the rapid development of the Palestinian economy."

Palestinian skepticism
In the West Bank, officials in the Western-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas were skeptical and spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh dismissed Netanyahu's call for economic development.

Video: New Israeli government "Any solutions with other nicknames and titles are only an attempt to escape the commitments of the peace process," he said, listing main issues in negotiations for a state — borders, settlements and Jerusalem.

Besides Labor, Netanyahu's main partner is Yisrael Beitenu. Its leader and designated foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has drawn allegations of racism for a proposal that could end up stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship unless they declare their loyalty to the Jewish state.

Another coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, objects to even discussing sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

As of now, Netanyahu has parties with 69 of the 120 seats in parliament on his team, and he may sign up one or two more small hawkish factions.

But Netanyahu's main rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, insisted Wednesday that she will stay out, referring to herself as the future head of the parliamentary opposition.

"I have no doubt that the public wouldn't want to see us buried in the government without being able to substantially influence its policies, and we will present our views every day in the opposition," she told Channel 2 TV, after earlier describing the incoming team as "conceived in sin." Kadima received 28 seats in the Feb. 10 election, one more than Netanyahu's Likud.

Report: 'Evidence of war crimes'
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch said called on the United Nations to investigate alleged Israeli violations of the rules of war, including the use of white phosphorous, during its three-week Gaza offensive.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that the shells were used in line with international law.

"The claim that smoke shells were used indiscriminately, or to threaten the civilian population, is baseless," the military said in a statement.

International law permits the use of phosphorous weapons as flares or to create smoke screens masking the movement of troops.

However, Human Rights Watch said Israeli troops frequently fired the shells over densely populated areas. The firing "was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes," the report said.

The group documented only some of the cases, including white phosphorous shells fired at a Gaza City hospital, the U.N. headquarters, a school and a market. In six attacks, 12 civilians were killed and dozens wounded, said Human Rights Watch researcher Fred Abrahams.

Each shell bursts into 116 burning white phosphorous wedges, over a radius of more than 135 yards. The wedges burn on contact with oxygen, creating intense heat, and can cause severe burns. The phosphorous kept burning for many days and was still smoldering well after Israel's withdrawal on Jan. 18.

Israel's use of white phosphorous violated the laws of war, Abrahams said.

"They knew perfectly well what danger white phosphorous poses to civilians," Abrahams said. "Their own documents prove it. They know that these areas were densely populated. Yet they fired it not once, not twice, but repeatedly into densely populated areas."

Hamas should also be investigated for war crimes, including indiscriminate rocket fire into Israeli border towns, Human Rights Watch said.

Israel launched its Gaza offensive on Dec. 27 in an attempt to halt rocket fire and weaken the territory's Hamas rulers. More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed in the war, according to a Palestinian human rights group. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

More on Israel   |  Benjamin Netanyahu

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