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Iran threat is paramount for new Israeli government: Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Israeli President Shimon Peres shake hands at the conclusion of a brief ceremony at the pr
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Israeli President Shimon Peres shake hands at the conclusion of a brief ceremony at the pr

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday took on the job of forming a new government and said its most important task would be to ensure that Iran does not gain nuclear arms.

President Shimon Peres formally called on Netanyahu to assemble a new coalition following the January 22 general election in which Netanyahu's rightist Likud-Beitenu emerged as the biggest party. It controls 31 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

"The paramount task of the government that I will form will be to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said as he accepted the mandate from Peres.

Israel and the West suspect that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear atomic program is purely for peaceful purposes.

Netanyahu also hinted at the security dangers posed by advanced Syrian weapons being transferred from Syria to Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and its apparent chemical weapons arsenal, but he did not specifically name the country.

"We will also have to deal with other deadly weaponry that is being amassed around us and threatens our cities and our citizens," he added.

Israel has remained silent, but diplomats, Syrian rebels and regional security sources said on Wednesday that Israeli jets had bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria also accused Israel of bombing a research site near Damascus.

In his short acceptance speech, Netanyahu repeated his commitment to peace with the Palestinians and called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume talks with him.

"The next government that I will form will be committed to peace. I call on Abu Mazen (Abbas) to return to the negotiating table. Every day that passes without us talking to jointly find a way to create peace for our peoples is a day wasted," Netanyahu said.

But drawing the Palestinians back to the table may be hard. Talks broke down in 2010 over Israel's continued settlement building. With Netanyahu set to ask a powerful pro-settler party to join him, and many in his own party also partial to settlers, he is sure to face strong internal opposition.

Last week Peres met representatives from the 12 parties elected to parliament, the Knesset, and factions that control 82 seats proposed Netanyahu should be asked to form a government.

Coalition-building talks will begin on Sunday in Tel Aviv, although initially, at least, Netanyahu will not be involved directly. He has appointed his party ally and former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to lead the Likud-Beitenu team.

During the global downturn, Israel's economy has been among the fastest growing of Western countries, reaching 3.3 percent in 2012 after a 4.6 percent spurt in 2011, with expectations of close to 3 percent this year but Netanyahu called for vigilance.

"The global economic crisis has not ended and we must maintain places of work and continued growth and create more jobs," he said.

CONCESSIONS

Likud-Beitenu took a battering at the ballot box and won 11 fewer seats than it had going into the election, meaning Netanyahu may have to be more considerate of his partners.

His administration is expected to be cobbled together from a new centrist party headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid, which with 19 seats is the second-largest party, the 12-seat far-right pro-settler Bayit Yehudi ("Jewish Home") faction and other centrist and religious parties.

Lapid, a political novice, leads the "Yesh Atid" (There is a Future) party and none of its members has prior parliamentary experience -- one of the selling points that attracted voters.

He campaigned on a ticket of an "equal sharing of the burden" and helping the middle class, especially with housing and education.

"Equal sharing" is political code for meeting the complaints of secular tax-payers about the concessions given to the ultra-Orthodox, whose men study in Jewish seminaries, often on state stipends, and who are not drafted into the army.

Netanyahu committed to follow Lapid's lead, although he did not say how he would square the circle. Ultra-Orthodox parties have for decades successfully resisted mass conscription of 18-year-old men and have vowed to continue to do so.

"We are committed to increase significantly an equal share of the burden and I am convinced that we can do this in a responsible manner that can bring a basic change without tearing the nation apart," he said.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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