JERUSALEM — Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu sought Thursday to reassure Europeans that he will continue peace talks with the Palestinians if he wins February's general election, despite a rightward tilt in his Likud Party.
He was speaking to Israel-based EU ambassadors in the wake of Likud primaries, which catapulted several ultra-hawks into the top 30 places on the party's slate of candidates for Feb. 10 elections.
Netanyahu was the guest speaker at a lunch hosted by the European Union and arranged long before Monday's primaries. He used the occasion to try to quell concerns fueled by the outcome, which delivered significant advances for a wing of Likud seeking to halt peace talks, ban minority Arab citizens of Israel from the parliament, encourage non-Jews to leave the country and pull Israel out of the United Nations.
Following the primary results, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the rival Kadima Party warned that a victory for a Likud slate peppered with die-hard opponents of concessions to the Palestinians could plunge Israel into international isolation.
Netanyahu resisted peace efforts when he was prime minister from 1996-1999 but says he will carry on existing negotiations with the Palestinians if he is returned to power, as polls indicate, though with more emphasis on encouraging Palestinian economic growth rather than a speedy transition to a sovereign Palestinian state.
"I told them that a Likud government under my leadership will continue the peace talks, stressing security and economic development," Netanyahu said in a brief statement after Thursday's lunch. "We intend to interlace them with economic development, rapid economic development for the Palestinians and regional cooperation with Jordan and Egypt."
Likud spokeswoman Amit Koren said the party has dropped ultra-hawk Moshe Feiglin far down on its list of candidates for Feb. 10 elections despite his strong showing in the primary. Feiglin opposes peace talks with the Palestinians, encourages non-Jews to leave the country and advocates recapturing the Gaza Strip.
Feiglin finished in 20th place in the voting, but Koren said Likud's court dropped him to the 36th position.