(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the Knesset's winter session Monday by inviting his Lebanese counterpart to to begin peace talks.
"I want to take this opportunity to call on Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to meet with me face-to-face," Olmert said during his address to the MKs. "Direct talks can bring peace to both our peoples."
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Saniora rebuffed Olmert's offer within hours, promising that Lebanon would be "the last Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel."
Olmert said he is ready to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas immediately. The prime minister also said the Palestinians must take responsibility for their own future and move away from the support of extremist groups.
"Israel distinguishes between the Hamas-led government and Abbas... the legitimate partner for peace," said Olmert. "As long as the Hamas government does not recognize the State of Israel, accept those accords that have been agreed upon and operate to halt terror attacks, we cannot engage it."
The reiterated his disinterest in meeting with Syria, stressing that peace "could only be made with those who reject terror."
It was the first speech that the prime minister has given in the plenum since the victory speech he gave in mid-August, the day after the cease-fire with Lebanon was approved. Then, a somber and attentive Knesset greeted him with near-unanimous support.
On Monday, however, Olmert had to stop his speech on four separate occasions due to heckling by MKs from the Likud, United Torah Judaism, Meretz and Arab parties.
The loudest objections came from the Arab party members, who have announced that they would stage "deafening and drastic" protests if the "racist" Israel Beiteinu party was added to the coalition.
Over the past few weeks there has been increased talk of Israel Beiteinu joining the coalition, leading many to believe that Olmert's comment that he was "leaving the door wide open" for other parties to join the coalition was aimed at Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman.
"Let's work together to establish an appropriate and honorable government," Olmert said. " I invite any opposition party to take part in the action and join the coalition."
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking next, likened the country to a "car traveling on a path toward an abyss," and said the solution on offer "was to change the model of the car."
While Netanyahu said he supported a change in the electoral system, he added that this must be done responsibly. "The government structure is not a pair of socks that can be changed every day," he said. "Our proposal is to begin discussion of the issue."
Netanyahu said Israel must consider taking "preventative" measures against an Iranian nuclear threat. "This is our life and our children's lives," he said. "We received a reminder recently from North Korea. We must call on all nations to keep extremist governments from achieving nuclear capability."
Earlier, Olmert said, "The world must ensure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons. The latest events in North Korea make the danger clear."
Monday's opening day ceremonies happened to fall on the 20th anniversary of IAF navigator Ron Arad's capture in Lebanon. Families of airmen who served with Arad attended the Knesset ceremonies and were greeted by all of the legislators who spoke from the plenum. The families of the three soldiers recently kidnapped by Hizbullah and Hamas were also present.
During his speech, the prime minister said Israel "has not forgotten, nor shall we forget" the abducted IDF soldiers. He added that the government had not forgotten the devastation caused by the war in the North.