Netanyahu vows to improve U.S. relations as he begins forming a government

On the day he was formally designated to form Israel’s next government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried Wednesday to smooth over a deepening rift with the Obama administration.

But he seemed headed toward a heavily right-leaning coalition whose policies could put Israel on a sustained collision course with Washington, with persistent differences over policy toward Iran and peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu called the United States “our best of friends” at the ceremony where Israeli President Reuven Rivlin appointed him to begin coalition talks – yet another effort to calm the storm of acrimonious commentary from the Obama administration over his election campaign rejection of an independent Palestinian state and what critics have called a racist appeal to his supporters on election day.

“We value very much and will diligently preserve our alliance with the United States, our best of friends,” Netanyahu said.

Rivlin said Netanyahu’s goal must be the creation of a stable government that would be “as broad as possible.”

Netanyahu’s coalition-building efforts, however, so far have focused on right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties that have been his traditional allies, along with a new center-right party, Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, has been promised the post of finance minister.

After a decisive election victory last week in which his conservative Likud party won 30 parliamentary seats, Netanyahu has enlisted the support of enough parties to form a 67-seat majority in the 120-member parliament.

Along with Kulanu, which won 10 parliamentary seats in a campaign focused on pocketbook issues, Netanyahu’s coalition partners are expected to include the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, with eight seats, the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction, with six; and two ultra-Orthodox parties: Shas, with seven seats, and United Torah Judaism, with six.

Netanyahu has up to six weeks to form a new government, and coalition talks are expected to include tough bargaining over cabinet posts and policy demands.

Some commentators speculated that if the talks run into trouble, Netanyahu could reach out to his political opponents, the Zionist Union alliance, to try to broaden his parliamentary base and bring in moderates more palatable to Washington and Europe.

“If the current coalition negotiations run into difficulties that cannot be bridged, then it could be that the option that in my view is irrelevant at the moment will suddenly come to life,” Tzahi Hanegbi of Likud, the outgoing deputy foreign minister, told Israel Radio.

Despite his vow to mend fences with Washington, Netanyahu said he would continue working against a proposed diplomatic deal on Iran’s nuclear program, which he said “endangers us, our neighbors and the world.”

He also pledged to “heal the rifts” opened in Israel during the recent election campaign, in which he offended Israeli Arabs with an election day warning to his supporters that Arab voters were going “in droves” to the polls as part of a left-wing effort to unseat him.

That appeal, along with his pledge that no Palestinian state would be established while he was prime minister, triggered heavy criticism from Washington, and Obama said the U.S. would have to reassess its policies toward Israel.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that despite differences with Netanyahu over a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the administration will “keep an open line of communication” with Israel at the highest levels and continue security cooperation.

He declined to comment on the possible makeup of the new Israeli coalition.

“The newly elected Israeli prime minister has to form a government, appoint cabinet ministers and begin making policy decisions about what he believes is in the best interests of his country,” he said.

Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.