Miffed Sharon delays inauguration in Israel Netanyahu's key ally sulks over Cabinet job, plays role of spoiler

June 20, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Ariel Sharon is used to being a spoiler.

The inauguration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was put on hold for five hours Tuesday night while the barrel-bellied former army general sulked at home to get a better Cabinet job. The crisis was defused, at least for a time, when Netanyahu made what other Cabinet ministers saw as a generous offer to carve from their turf a brand new ministry for Sharon.

As of yesterday, Sharon still had not accepted and was set to give a list of demands to Netanyahu today.

Netanyahu's failure to clinch an agreement with Sharon before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, voted on his new government was a near-disaster.

Angry coalition members were on the brink of a revolt, and the events brought Netanyahu a slew of scathing press reviews yesterday, his first full day in office.

"All the arrogant talk about a 'presidential administration' and 'government of excellence' exploded yesterday like a soap bubble under one of the more disgraceful shows the Knesset has seen," wrote Yoel Marcus in the newspaper Ha'aretz.

"Netanyahu's government began its journey yesterday on the left foot," wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Ahronot. "It made a winning candidate the subject of jokes."

Sharon, the protagonist in this mini-drama, is not a man who cares much about the reviews.

He was chastened repeatedly by superiors in his army career, but bragged about ignoring their orders. As defense minister, he was blamed for the disastrous war in Lebanon in 1982 and was held indirectly responsible for a massacre at a Beirut refugee camp.

As housing minister from 1990 to 1992, he helped relations between Israel and the United States plunge to new lows, thanks to a construction program that increased the Jewish settler population by nearly 60 percent. By the time he left the ministry, the state comptroller found it riddled with overspending, chaotic record-keeping and questionable financial dealings with cronies.

And Sharon demanded that Netanyahu give him the post again.

"He is a constant underminer who cares only about furthering his personal ambitions," Netanyahu said of Sharon in May 1994, an assessment the prime minister has yet to retract. "He refuses to accept democratic institutions."

Indeed, Sharon has feuded with most of his political colleagues. He has often changed allies and even sides; he was once an adviser to the Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin and formed his own political party in 1977.

His current clout with Netanyahu comes because before the election, he cut political deals that neutralized Netanyahu's opponents on the right.

Despite the near scandals and the political intrigue that have marked his career, Sharon has a strong and enthusiastic following among Israelis, who see him as a charismatic leader and genuine war hero.

Sharon's military exploits are legendary. He formed the first elite commando unit, which carried out retaliatory actions against Arabs. He sent his troops on a daring parachute mission behind Egyptian lines in the 1956 Suez war, commanded an armored division in the 1967 Six-Day War, and helped turn the tide to Israel's favor in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Violated orders

The dark side is that some of these exploits were against orders and were deemed by superiors as more bold than wise.

"Yes, I disobeyed orders," he once boasted in an interview with the newspaper Ma'ariv. "I tried not to carry out instructions."

Sharon's treatment of the enemy also drew notice. In 1953, he blew up houses and a school in the Jordanian village of Qibya, killing 69 Arabs. In 1956, his own officers demanded his resignation for unnecessary aggressiveness.

In the late 1960s, his ruthlessness in putting down Arab unrest in Gaza led to his transfer. In 1982, he was responsible for pushing Israeli troops to Beirut, far beyond the expected limits of Israel's invasion.

Yet to Sharon's supporters, it would be inconceivable to have a Likud Cabinet without Sharon.

"Should Sharon be in the government? It is an absurd question," said Shaya Segal, an aide to Sharon. "Nobody would say he shouldn't, except for those extreme leftists who think he ought to be deported to Australia. Do you know anybody with more authority and more experience than Arik Sharon?"

The National Infrastructure Ministry being created for him by Netanyahu could give Sharon ample opportunities to flex that authority. Sharon is demanding responsibility for the water commission, the public lands authority, electricity, fuel and gas refineries, all the roads in the country, as well as the ports, trains and airports.

Other ministers are balking at this power grab.

"The water commission will move nowhere," barked Rafiel Eitan, Sharon's former chief of staff in the military, now the minister of agriculture and thus responsible for water. "They will have to decide between him being in the Cabinet and me."

Ally of settlers

But others want Sharon to have maximum power.

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