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Netanyahu cabinet post { November 4 2002 }

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November 4, 2002
Netanyahu Agrees to Cabinet Post

JERUSALEM, Nov. 3 Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conditionally agreed today to become Israel's foreign minister, provided that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls for new elections soon.

Mr. Sharon, who would surely face a sharp primary challenge from Mr. Netanyahu before any general election, did not immediately respond to the barbed proposal.

It was the latest move in Israel's suddenly dynamic politics, as Mr. Sharon has worked to recruit allies and box in rivals in order to shore up his minority government now that the Labor Party has walked out.

Like Mr. Sharon's choice for defense minister Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff Mr. Netanyahu favors exiling Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

In a television interview tonight after meeting with Mr. Sharon, Mr. Netanyahu said that if he joined the government, it would have to move quickly to address three issues. He said he wanted to reach understandings with the prime minister on exile for Mr. Arafat, statehood for the Palestinians, and the location of a new fence along the boundary of the West Bank. Mr. Sharon, Mr. Netanyahu said, also supported exile.

Mr. Sharon tried and failed to persuade his previous government to support exiling Mr. Arafat. He has said he has also been restrained by a promise to President Bush not to harm the Palestinian leader.

As foreign minister, Mr. Netanyahu would replace Shimon Peres, an architect of the Oslo accords and a supporter of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

After 19 months of unity government, Mr. Peres departed the coalition last week, along with other ministers from the left-of-center Labor Party, over a budget dispute. Today, Mr. Sharon's representatives began negotiations to bring far-right parties into the coalition.

Mr. Sharon has assured the Bush administration that his new government will not depart from the policies of the old one. But rightist factions are demanding as the price of their support that the government oppose some of Mr. Bush's stated goals, including the eventual creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Without Labor's 25 seats, Mr. Sharon, who has endorsed the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, now controls only 55 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. He is vulnerable to a majority vote of no-confidence. Such a vote is scheduled for Monday, but Mr. Sharon is believed to have lined up enough backing to survive it.

If the government falls, Mr. Sharon is required to call new elections to be held within 90 days. Under the electoral calendar, elections are not scheduled until October.

If Mr. Sharon accepts Mr. Netanyahu's proposals, elections could come as soon as February, politicians here said.

An adept debater who speaks American-accented English, Mr. Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 until 1999, is widely seen inside Israel as one of its best spokesmen abroad. He is a member of Mr. Sharon's party, the Likud, and so might seem an obvious choice for foreign minister. But the offer, like Mr. Netanyahu's conditional acceptance of it, was double-edged.

In offering the Foreign Ministry to Mr. Netanyahu, his chief Likud rival, Mr. Sharon tried to corner him politically, Israeli politicians said. Mr. Netanyahu was faced with the choice of becoming Mr. Sharon's subordinate or appearing to favor his own ambition over the good of the country in a time of crisis.

But Mr. Netanyahu invented a third option, essentially throwing a similar dilemma back at Mr. Sharon. Mr. Sharon must now choose whether to accept early elections or risk looking like the self-interested one.

"They are playing chess with each other," said one member of Parliament from the Likud, clearly relishing the exchange.

In a statement from the prime minister's office tonight, Mr. Sharon "praised the decision in principle by Mr. Netanyahu to join his government." The statement said Mr. Netanyahu's demand for early elections was "being examined."

In the television interview tonight, on Israel's Channel 1, Mr. Netanyahu made no secret of his ambitions, describing himself as "a former prime minister, and as one planning on becoming prime minister."

Mr. Netanyahu said he told Mr. Sharon he would be "glad to serve as foreign minister in a government going to early elections."

"If we don't go to early elections," he said, "the Likud will fidget, the government will fidget, it will be subjected to endless blackmailing, and the economic collapse which is happening before our eyes will only worsen. I told him that we both must do the right thing, and the right thing is to immediately go to new elections."

In forgoing a run for prime minister two years ago, Mr. Netanyahu argued that no Likud prime minister could govern effectively, because there was no clear right-wing majority in Parliament. Now, the right is seen as likely to gain seats in a general election.

In the television interview, Mr. Netanyahu said he had a "clear objection to a Palestinian state, which in my opinion will be a state of terror led by Arafat with an ability to threaten our existence."

Mr. Netanyahu, 53, has been a persistent critic of Mr. Sharon from the right. Even as Israeli forces seized West Bank cities and towns in reprisal for Palestinian violence, he has repeatedly criticized Mr. Sharon as not going far enough in battling Mr. Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu said he "agreed to accept the position of Israel's foreign minister provided the government goes to early elections to salvage Israel's ailing economy."

Mr. Sharon told his reduced cabinet today that he intended on Monday to submit to the Parliament his choice of Mr. Mofaz as defense minister. Mr. Mofaz finished a four-year term as chief of staff in July.

Some members of Parliament have expressed the concern that Mr. Mofaz is too recently out of the army to serve as its civilian master and watchdog. They say he may be too close personally to the top officers and too invested in the army's policies. But he is nevertheless expected to win parliamentary approval.

Mr. Mofaz will replace Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the chairman of the Labor Party, who is now the leader of the opposition in Parliament.

Mr. Peres confirmed today that Mr. Sharon had offered him the chance to break with his party's decision and remain foreign minister. "They personally offered me the chance to be foreign minister, but I refused," he told Israeli radio. "I am a member of the party, and not a conditional member. All my life I have been a member of the movement. I do not belong to the breed of person that thinks he is the torch-bearer, the great leader." He predicted that a narrow, right-wing coalition would not survive.

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