Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, receives a folder from Israeli President Simon Peres in a brief ceremony in the president's Jerusalem residence Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Israel's president has asked Netanyahu to form the next government, and Netanyahu says he wants to advance peace talks with the Palestinians. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's president asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday to form the next government, and Netanyahu pledged that his new administration will be committed to advancing peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israeli President Shimon Peres formally requested Netanyahu to build a governing coalition, after conducting consultations with all 12 parties that won seats in last week's election. A majority of newly elected lawmakers recommended Netanyahu as prime minister-designate.
Netanyahu now has six weeks to form a coalition government, with an extension of 14 days if needed. If he succeeds, he will begin his third term as Israeli premier.
At a televised news conference, Netanyahu said the government's top priority should be to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. He also said the government should "deal with another deadly weapon being stockpiled near us and threatening our cities and civilians," a thinly veiled reference to weapons caches in Syria. An attack on a weapons convoy in Syria this week has been widely attributed to Israel, though Israel has not commented on the matter.
Netanyahu also said his next government would be "committed to peace."
"I call on Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) to come back to the negotiating table," Netanyahu said. "It's a shame, with every day that passes without us talking and trying to find a solution for peace for our two nations."
Netanyahu also vowed to push for more universal military service that would put an end to longstanding draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students, lower housing prices and revamp the Israeli system of governance. Those were three high-priority issues for the new centrist party Yesh Atid, which emerged as the second largest party in the January elections after Netanyahu's Likud party.
Party leader Yair Lapid, a former television anchorman, campaigned on middle-class issues like the high cost of living, and also criticized Netanyahu's outgoing government for including too many ministers.
Netanyahu said he wants a broad governing coalition that will bring stability to the government and allow it to confront these challenges.
"At a time when there are so many forces trying to splinter Israel, we have to unite," Netanyahu said.
It will be difficult for Netanyahu to form a wide coalition. Lapid's new centrist party is expected to be Netanyahu's main coalition partner, but to ensure a parliamentary majority, the two will need at least one more mid-sized partner.
The most likely candidates are two parties that stand staunchly against Lapid's demands for compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and advancing peace talks with the Palestinians.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party is likely to resist any change to Israel's draft law, and the pro-settlements Jewish Home party will likely resist attempts to restart talks with the current Palestinian leadership.
Lapid has said he will not sit in a government that does not restart moribund peace talks with the Palestinians, but the issue could get sidelined since the largest parties share more common ground on domestic matters like the army draft.
Israel's new members of parliament are scheduled to be sworn in next week.