Sharon takes over in Israel, pledges to restore security

New premier forms biggest government in nation's history

`We'll still know hard days'

March 08, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Ariel Sharon took power as Israel's fifth prime minister in six years last night atop the biggest government in the nation's history, a motley mix of right-wing, far-right, center-left and ultra-religious that he hopes will stand behind him in a risky new stage of confrontation with the Palestinians.

Pledging to do everything possible to restore security to Israelis besieged by bombs and gunfire, he nevertheless warned: "Let's not delude ourselves. We'll still know hard days. We'll need fortitude and endurance."

To Palestinians, he said the new government's hand was outstretched in peace, which he understands would entail "painful compromise." He said he was willing to explore new ideas to ease the stress imposed on them.

But he insisted in a speech to parliament that he would not negotiate "under the pressure of terror and violence."

The 72-year-old hard-line former general assumed the post in the midst of a nearly half-year guerrilla war with the Palestinians that some fear could spread into a regional conflict.

Elected overwhelmingly by voters who concluded that predecessor Ehud Barak's efforts to end the conflict had failed, Sharon faces the hard challenge of trying to suppress attacks against Israelis without escalating the cycle of provocation and revenge.

After doling out a record 23 minister's portfolios and naming 15 deputy ministers, he is assured of a solid majority of 73 votes in the 120-member parliament. The Cabinet is so large, the table where members sit in the Knesset had to be extended.

But many predict that the broad government will be prone to internal crises and paralysis. Opposition leader Yossi Sarid, who heads the left-wing Meretz Party, called it "the government of the big evasion ... an alibi government."

From Labor, it includes determined peace-seeker Shimon Peres as foreign minister and a hawkish retired general, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, as defense minister.

From the far right, it includes Rehavam Zeevi, who has called for removal of Palestinians from the territories; and Avigdor Lieberman, who in the recent election campaign suggested that Israel might respond to regional threats by bombing Iran's capital and Egypt's Aswan Dam.

Sharon has given the Interior Ministry, among other portfolios, and a deputy prime minister's slot to the Shas Party, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox movement that is skilled at exploiting moments of crisis to extract financial and political concessions.

Shas obtained its first big concession even before the government was sworn in, threatening to bolt unless parliament voted to extend the draft exemption for religious Yeshiva students by two years. Parliament complied.

Some commentators predicted that the government would prove too unwieldy and fall apart well before the next scheduled election in 2003, but opposition lawmaker Naomi Chazan disagreed. It will last, she said, "till the end of the term, give or take a few months - unfortunately."

At a time when Israel's economy is weakening, the new government is expected to spend more money, particularly on the military.

Sharon's military plans remain under wraps or incomplete as he waits for a response from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his call for an end to Palestinian gunfire and for strong efforts to clip the terrorist wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Any early steps will immediately test Sharon's ability to unite his coalition, said an analyst writing in yesterday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper: "If he acts with restraint, the Right will say that this is just a continuation of Barak's government and that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] should be allowed to be victorious. If he reacts more radically, he will cause agitation among the Labor Party."

Sharon has said he wants to end the siege that has crippled the Palestinian economy, but he first wants Arafat to make an unequivocal public call to end the violence and resume cooperation on security with Israeli authorities.

A U.S. diplomat told reporters yesterday that despite Sharon's earlier statements, the prime minister would be willing to relinquish more territory to the Palestinians as part of a long-term interim agreement, although he didn't know how much.

In his speech to parliament, Sharon repeated a pledge made in a coalition agreement with Labor not to add Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement allows existing settlements to expand.

But he also reaffirmed his refusal to compromise on Jerusalem, calling it the link to the Jews' national existence. "If we turn our back on our past, our symbols and what's holy to us, then by our own hands we are questioning our future and our destiny," he said.

Sharon wants to postpone negotiations for a final settlement and says he won't be bound by any informal understandings between the Palestinians and Barak.

Seeking to renew Israel's pioneering spirit, he said the nation's schools would place new stress on Zionism and Jewish history.

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