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Sharon finalize gov without labor

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Sharon puts final touches on Israel gov't
By Joshua Brilliant
From the International Desk
Published 2/26/2003 3:38 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spent Wednesday putting the final touches to his new government, replacing his foreign minister and concluding coalition agreements with three factions designed to give his new government the backing of 68 Knesset members in the 120-seat parliament.

The Knesset's spokesman Giora Pordes said Sharon is scheduled to present his government Thursday afternoon for a vote of confidence.

The most dramatic change was the removal of Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and his main rival in the Likud Party, from the post of foreign minister. Sharon is replacing Netanyahu with Silvan Shalom, who has been serving as finance minister in the outgoing government.

Shalom's record as finance minister has been controversial as the economy plummets, businesses close and unemployment spreads. However, Shalom insisted on keeping the job, and reportedly threatened to turn against Sharon if he was replaced.

Shalom is very popular in the Likud, having won the fourth slot in its list of Knesset candidates. His supporters rallied to his aide and in recent days rekindled old grievances that the Ashkenazi Jews, whose families came from Europe, were discriminating against Sepharadi Jews, who came from Arab countries.

Most of the Likud supporters and about a third of its Knesset faction are Sepharadi, including Shalom, who was born in Tunisia. If he were out of the government, his supporters asserted, only one Sepharadi minister would remain, Iranian-born Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Some complained Israel was returning to the situation that had existed some 50 years ago when the cabinet included one, "token," Sepharadi.

Wednesday morning Sharon tried on the possibility of appointing Shalom education minister, but the incumbent minister, Limor Livnat, insisted on keeping her job. Sharon then summoned Netanyahu and offered him Shalom's post of finance minister. Netanyahu rejected the offer, and for the time being is out in the cold.

Shalom, 44, came to Israel in 1959 as a journalist, entered politics and served as deputy defense minister when Netanyahu was prime minister. His political views are hawkish and he often advocated the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Indeed, Shalom's reputation was likely the spur for heavy Palestinian criticism Wednesday of the new Israeli government. Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat commented to United Press International it "consists of the extremists and the far right wing parties who support ... expansion of (Jewish) settlements and a destructive war against our defenseless people."

It's true that Shalom has been extremely loyal to Sharon and his policies, which include supporting controversial Jewish settlements in and near Palestinian lands. "There aren't many who supported (Sharon) through thick and thin," and such people must be taken care of, a source close to Sharon told United Press International.

Erekat called on the United States "to hurry with the roadmap declaration without any delay." Israel had announced last week that it would require some 100 changes in the roadmap plan and Erekat is anxious for a U.S. endorsement of the existing version.

The roadmap calls for reciprocating steps that would increase Israel's security while working toward an independent Palestinian state. It would begin with reforms into the Palestinian security systems and civil institutions then proceed toward reaching a cease-fire agreement, resuming peace talks and establish Palestine by the year 2005.

The United States had postponed the declaration of the plan twice -- the first until after the Israeli elections and the second until after Sharon formed his new government.

"It is time now to declare the roadmap peace plan and put a mechanism and a timetable for implementing it, and to send international observers to the Palestinian territories," declared Erekat.

While Sharon was busy appointing his Likud Party leaders to cabinet positions, Likud Party aides signed the final coalition agreements with representatives of the centrist, secular Shinui Party, the hawkish National Religious Party, and the very hawkish National Union.

The 50 pages of coalition agreements and agreed cabinet guidelines say the government would strive for permanent peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Resolution 242 calls for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories to recognized and secure boundaries.

"The government's activities in the political arena would be guided by principles the prime minister presented to the public before the elections," the cabinet guidelines say and specifically refer to an address Sharon made in Herzliya last December. In that address he said he accepted, in principle, U.S. President George Bush's guidelines for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, but added many prior conditions.

The text of that speech is "an inseparable part" of the coalition agreement with Shinui -- which advocates establishing a Palestinian state as a step to resolving the Mideast conflict -- the agreement between Likud and Shinui reads. But Sharon has kept his options open and in a letter to Shinui noted: "The government of Israel has many reservations and corrections to the drafts presented it by the American administration. ... When there is a full agreement between Israel and the United States, the arrangement will be presented for discussion and approval by the Government of Israel."

The fact that Shinui supports a Palestinian state is some comfort to Arabs, but without the Labor Party their view will be in the minority within the new coalition. Another coalition member, the National Union, filed a letter stating it "strenuously opposes the possibility of creating a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River whatever its borders, authorities and standing would be." The NRP's letter goes on to pronounce without equivocation that the party "completely opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and will act to prevent its establishment."

Political science Professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University said he believes Sharon will have a free hand regarding the political process. "It doesn't appear that the right wing's most important issue, a Palestinian state, is immediately on the agenda. It might pop up, but it will take some time," he said.

Avineri believes Sharon would want to avoid a confrontation with the United States. But the prime minister and President George Bush agree that as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is there, and no serious changes are made in the Palestinian Authority, there is no way to move forward.

"If there is going to be a dramatic change ... in Ramallah ... it would be a new ball game," Avineri said, predicting Sharon could then get rid of the hawkish parties.

Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna Tuesday promised to back Sharon if he advances the peace process. Appearing on the popular Channel 1 TV show Popolitika, Mitzna said of Sharon: "If and when he will advance with the peace process, we shall provide a safety net and be there. In the future, too, we will agree to be partners to any move that would extract Israel from the terrible distress in which we are steeped."

Other clauses in the cabinet guidelines said no new settlements would be established during its tenure but "the government will see to the current needs of development in the settlements." It would try to strengthen peace and normalization with Egypt and Jordan and "deepen close and special relationship with the United States."

Meanwhile, soon-to-be former Foreign Minister Netanyahu was reportedly reconsidering the offer of the treasury portfolio. It entails great risks that could make his political future, or break it. The new finance minister will have to take drastic steps to save the economy and is not going to be popular, at least not for a while.


(With reporting by Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza.)

Copyright 2001-2003 United Press International

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