Sharon named foreign minister Longtime hawk given Israeli post as peace talks near

A move to quell opposition


JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former defense minister, to be Israeli foreign minister yesterday in an effort to placate the far right as he moves closer to turning over more West Bank land to the Palestinians.

With his appointment, Sharon, 70, an ardent advocate for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, is expected to quell domestic opposition to the concessions that Netanyahu is supposedly prepared to make at a peace summit conference in Maryland next week.

For months, Sharon, who is currently the minister of national infrastructures, has maintained that redeploying Israeli troops from more than an additional 9 percent of the West Bank would be a "national disaster." In assuming the role of foreign minister, however, he would be forced to abandon his public opposition to Netanyahu's decision to withdraw from another 13 percent of the Palestinian territory -- even if he votes against the accord.

(Within hours of his appointment, Sharon reiterated his opposition to the 13 percent withdrawal and repeated a pledge not to shake Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hand, Reuters reported.

("I am against a 13 percent withdrawal, and my stand has not changed," he said on Channel One Television. As to Arafat, he said, "My stand has not changed on this issue either. It will be remembered that Sharon said in the past: 'Arafat is a murderer.' I will never shake his hand.")

Sharon will be drawn directly into the issue, since Netanyahu has appointed him to direct the final status talks with the Palestinians, which would follow the signing of an interim peace agreement.

Palestinian leaders and Israelileftists were divided in their reactions, in similar ways. Some professed to be aghast, and some, like Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian transportation minister, said they were willing to "forget history" if Sharon's appointment provided Netanyahu the political strength to sign a deal.

In Washington, White House and State Department officials pledged to work closely with Sharon and emphasized that the personnel in an Israeli government are an internal affair.

"Arik Sharon is the most fitting person in the state of Israel for the position of foreign minister," Netanyahu said, using his nickname. "He brings with him rich experience, creativity, proven working ability and I think that he well knows both the wounds and damages of war as well as the fruits of peace.

"Sharon has never hidden his beliefs," he continued, "and his words have influenced the way that the redeployment will be carried out if not its extent."

In a nod to Sharon, Netanyahu has decided on a new location for the nature reserve that would constitute 3 percent of the West Bank land. It was supposed to be in the Judean desert near Israel's eastern border, which Sharon argued would pose a strategic security risk. Instead, it was decided on Thursday that the nature reserve would instead be on the slopes of the Hebron hills, much closer to existing Jewish settlements.

Many Israeli political observers believe that Netanyahu has eviscerated his right-wing opposition with this appointment, signaling that he genuinely intends to bring home a peace agreement.

"Who is the right wing now if Sharon is in the Foreign Ministry and negotiating with the Palestinians?" asked Uzi Benziman, an editorial board member of the newspaper Haaretz and author of a critical biography of Sharon. "It will be just the settlers and some real hard-liners who don't comprise more than 15 percent of public opinion. So it's really quite an intelligent move, suggesting that Netanyahu means business in trying to get an agreement."

But the Palestinians took the news hard, and read it differently.

"I think it's a clear-cut message from Bibi," Saeb Erekat, a lead negotiator for the Palestinians, said, using Netanyahu's nickname. "I imagine people will try to explain Netanyahu's intentions as trying to get the support of the right. What he is trying to do is make peace with the right wing at the expense of making peace with us. It means he wants to continue on the path of non-negotiations, because he wants to continue to be prime minister at any cost."

Sharon declined to be interviewed yesterday because his appointment must still be approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday, an approval that is expected. An aide, Raanan Gisin, said Sharon accepted the position so that he could "stem the tide of dangerous developments and contribute to fighting the risks facing Israel."

A retired general who fought in every Israeli war, Sharon, 70, is a leading figure of the Likud bloc.

When Netanyahu first formed his Cabinet in 1996, the fact that he did not give Sharon a senior position caused an 11th-hour crisis before the swearing-in ceremony. Sharon retreated to his family farm in the Negev, and David Levy, who had been named foreign minister, said he would not serve unless Sharon was given a post. Netanyahu then created a Cabinet job, the minister of infrastructures, especially for Sharon.

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