Livni to lead peace team in new Israeli government

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni will be Israel's negotiator in talks with the Palestinians in the emerging coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his bloc said on Tuesday.

Livni, who heads the centrist HaTnuah party, would serve as justice minister and "negotiator with the Palestinians to reach an agreement that would end the conflict," said the agreement distributed by the Likud-Beitenu alliance.

HaTnuah, which campaigned for renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians, is the first party to join Netanyahu's new coalition.

After the government comes into place, "a ministerial team for the peace process with the Palestinians will be formed headed by the prime minister and participated by the justice minister, defence minister and foreign minister," said the agreement.

Speaking alongside Livni on Tuesday night, Netanyahu said Israel faced "huge challenges."

"The threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah do not stop for a moment. To deal with these threats, we need to form a broad and stable government that unifies the people," he said.

"In addition to our commitment to security, we must make any effort possible to promote a responsible peace process with the Palestinians" and to do that "we must unify forces.

"This is exactly what Tzipi Livni and I are doing today," he said. "We both know we need to put aside our differences, get over old rivalries and join forces for our country," said Netanyahu.

Livni headed the opposition during most of Netanyahu's latest term as premier.

Netanyahu said they would act together "to promote a process with the Palestinians aimed at reaching peace between two state-nations.

"Today Israel is reaching out its hand in peace another time," he said. "We want to negotiate. I will insist that any process will safeguard Israel's security and national interests."

Livni noted that "the diplomatic process is at the centre of our lives".

"This reality is what is bringing the US president here on a visit next month," said Livni.

Nimr Hammad, political adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said in a statement to AFP that "Livni's appointment to be in charge of negotiations with Palestinians could be a positive sign, if she gets the full mandate and powers to lead them."

"Livni was deep into the details of the negotiations, she has extensive knowledge and a clear vision of a solution, she knows what could lead to failure or success," he said of her position in peace talks under former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.

Peace talks have been stalled since September 2010, with Palestinians demanding Israel stop building settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem before a resumption of negotiations, and Israel rejecting any pre-conditions to talks.

Rekindling the peace process will also be on the agenda on the upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama, who announced he would be reaching the region in the spring, with Israeli media putting the date at March 20.

The agreement between Netanyahu and Livni's parties also states that a member of HaTnuah will receive the environment portfolio.

Livni has previously served as justice and foreign minister.

Netanyahu, whose rightwing list won a narrow victory with 31 of the Knesset's 120 seats in last month's election, has been struggling to piece together a government facing key diplomatic and foreign policy issues.

He has repeatedly declared his desire for the "broadest possible national unity government" to lead the country through "a decisive period" of its history, listing moves to restart negotiations with the Palestinians as one of his top priorities.