Netanyahu: A government with Liberman makes pursuing peace with Palestinians easier

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A broader coalition will allow Israel to pursue a peace process with the Palestinians with the help of regional actors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet on Sunday.
“I want to clarify that the government will continue to strive for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, with the help of regional actors,” Netanyahu said.
“I have personally devoted a lot of time to this in many places and I will continue to do so,” Netanyahu said.
He spoke after a week of political turmoil in which he is poised to sign an agreement that will bring Yisrael Beytenu into the coalition, thereby widening its membership from a narrow margin of 61 parliamentarians, out of 120, to a more stable one of 66.
Liberman will then become defense minister, replacing Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud.
Diplomatic and political pundits have speculated that a coalition with Liberman, particularly one that places him in such a sensitive post, will make it harder for Netanyahu to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected that claim, noting that from the moment he was elected for a third term, he had spoken of the necessity of widening the coalition.
“It is important for Israel to have as broad a coalition as possible,” Netanyahu said.
“We are in the midst of moves to expand the government. A broad coalition will help us meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead,” Netanyahu said.
Senior Likud sources said on Saturday night that Netanyahu intends to embark on a major diplomatic effort to disprove outgoing Ya’alon’s accusations that, under his premiership, Israel and the Likud Party are heading toward the extreme Right.
Netanyahu said Friday there is a great diplomatic opportunity on the horizon because of certain developments in the Middle East and, therefore, he has made efforts to bring the Zionist Union into a unity government. The prime minister said he is “leaving the door open in the most serious fashion” for the Zionist Union to join the government in the future.
Likud sources added that Netanyahu is aware that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog could no longer join the government after Netanyahu decided on an agreement with Yisrael Beytenu and to appoint its leader Avigdor Liberman as defense minister in Ya’alon’s stead rather than complete a deal with Herzog.
On Saturday Herzog said that both he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a number of discussions over the past several months  concerning the 2002 plan, also called “the Arab Peace Initiative.” 
During a cultural event in Kfar Saba, Herzog said he and the premier had labored over for regional peace proposal initiated by Saudi Arabia, saying the two considered taking dramatic new steps to normalize relations with Israel’s traditionally hostile neighbors.
The initial plan had called for a two-state solution on the pre-1967 lines with a just settlement for Palestinian refugees. In exchange, the Arab world would offer Israel normalized relations.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu tweeted in Arabic during an open chat with the public, Netanyahu said he would be willing to discuss an amended version of the Saudi plan.
In a dramatic speech on Tuesday, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi urged Israelis and Palestinians to take historic steps for peace.
Separately the French plan to launch their own international initiative in Paris on June 3. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is in Israel and the Palestinian territories through Tuesday to promote both that plan and continued economic ties with both governments.
He will be meeting former Israeli President Shimon Peres later on Sunday and Netanyahu on Monday.
Gil Hoffman and Daniel J. Roth contributed to this report.