Israel's Netanyahu says new government wants peace

Students of Estella's school for bakery and pastry making, work on an image depicting U.S. President Barack Obama made out of chocolate in Givat Shmuel, central Israel, Monday, March 18, 2013. Obama’s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank will take place March 20-22, and it is the U.S. leader’s first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister said Monday that his new government was extending its hand in peace to the Palestinians, declaring that he is ready to make a "historic compromise" if they return to the negotiating table with good will.

Laying out the agenda for his new term, Benjamin Netanyahu said he hopes to rejuvenate peace efforts, which remained frozen throughout Netanyahu's just-completed four-year term.

Netanyahu spoke before a ceremony to install his new coalition government, stitched together after nearly six weeks of negotiations following Israel's Jan. 23 parliamentary election. The new team, made up of hard-liners and moderates, appears to be focused more on domestic issues than peacemaking.

Netanyahu struck the conciliatory tone on the eve of the arrival of President Barack Obama, who will hold separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But he spoke only in generalities and gave no details on any concrete concessions he has in mind.

"We extend our hand in peace to the Palestinians," Netanyahu said. "Israel has proven time and again it is ready for concessions in exchange for real peace, and the situation today is no different."

"With a Palestinian partner that is willing to hold negotiations in good will, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all," he said.

Recognizing the deep gaps between the sides, the White House has already said Obama will not bring any bold new peace initiatives with him, but will instead send Secretary of State John Kerry back to the region in the near future to see if progress can be made.

The Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu in his last term while Israel continued to build homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say construction in the areas, which Israel captured in 1967 and where they hope to establish a state, is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the two areas.

Netanyahu has refused to halt settlement construction, saying negotiations should resume without any preconditions. But the international community has shown growing impatience with the Israelis.

Since winning re-election, Netanyahu has said he would make peace efforts a priority in his new term. But during weeks of coalition negotiations, he gave little indication of what he would do. Monday's speech was also devoid of specifics.

Ahead of Netanyahu's speech, one of his key partners, Avigdor Lieberman, said anyone who thinks peace can be reached is "delusional." Lieberman also said he would fight any attempts to freeze settlement construction.

Considering this recipe for deadlock, the Palestinians have shown no optimism over the new Israeli government.

The Israeli election focused heavily on domestic issues, such as the high cost of living and calls to end a contentious system that has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to be exempt from compulsory military service.

Netanyahu played down these issues in his speech. He said that while there is a "golden moment" to deal with them, his first concern was to protect Israel. He listed a number of security threats to Israel, including Iran's suspect nuclear program, instability in neighboring Egypt, the civil war to Israel's north in Syria and the threat of sophisticated weapons reaching the hands of violent anti-Israel groups.

"That is why the first priority in the course of the new government will be the protection of the state and its citizens," he said.