Israeli Cabinet's fabric a disparate patchwork

Sharon: Old warrior creates broad coalition to cope with Palestinian attacks, but promises little else.

March 08, 2001

ARIEL SHARON, at 73, was all washed up in Israeli politics before he was elected prime minister last month.

He had three selling points:

He is not Benjamin Netanyahu, the last Likud prime minister.

He opposed concessions that the Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak, made for peace.

He is practical and blunt.

Now the headstrong tank commander has put together a government of opposites.

His coalition might fragment if trying to make peace, but the Palestinians have been talking only conflict. This Cabinet can make war or, better yet, deter it.

Mr. Sharon could not unify Israelis, who are quarreling on ethnic, religious, class and philosophical grounds. But Yasser Arafat did by rejecting concessions for peace and praising violence against Israelis.

Mr. Sharon's Cabinet, the largest in the nation's history, assigns defense and foreign policy to the Labor Party, his former opposition. It includes a Druze, the first Arab to sit in an Israeli Cabinet.

To compensate for Mr. Sharon's isolation in the world, its foreign minister is Shimon Peres, 77, Israel's most prominent seeker of peace with Palestinians.

For good measure, it includes Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, daughter of the slain peace-maker Yitzhak Rabin, as deputy defense mini- ster.

What this government is about was made clear by testimony of Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, to a committee of the Knesset. He said the Palestinian Authority encourages such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to commit terrorism, and predicted more.

This is the context in which Prime Minister-elect Sharon will visit Washington on March 19 to address a pro-Israel lobbying group. He will meet the president at the White House the next day.

Mr. Sharon is probably not going to be prime minister long. He is likely the last to be elected directly, a flawed experiment soon to be dropped.

The reception he gets from official Washington will be the Bush administration's first step into a Middle East role that it cannot avoid.

The objective should be to quell the conflict now simmering, before it boils over.

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