New Israeli government presents unlikely alliance

Sharon's right-wing Likud is forming coalition with secular, religious parties

February 25, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced yesterday that he has reached agreements with two political factions to join with his right-wing Likud party and form a new government.

The coalition includes an unlikely alliance with both the secular Shinui party, which opposes the influence of ultra-Orthodox parties and the religious establishment; and the National Religious Party, which favors expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and opposes creation of a Palestinian state.

Sharon - whose Likud party dominated last month's national elections - plans to present his new coalition Thursday to a special session of the Knesset. Likud's 40 seats, coupled with Shinui's 15 and the NRP's six, would give the new government a bare majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament.

The coalition came together after a series of marathon talks following the center-left Labor Party's refusal over the weekend to join Sharon, alleging that the prime minister was not committed to a serious peace initiative with the Palestinians.

That left Sharon without the broad national unity government he desired and potentially leaves him with little room to maneuver should the United States press Israel to make concessions to help resolve the 29-month-old Palestinian crisis.

Sharon has repeatedly said he is committed - albeit with reservations - to a U.S.-backed but as yet unpublished "road map" spelling out conditions and timelines for resolving the crisis, such as a freeze on Jewish settlements and a withdrawal of Israeli troops, and leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Members of Shinui, which ran on a platform aimed at the secular middle class, are split on the Palestinian issue. Some want to return to negotiations immediately; others agree with Sharon's hard-line stance of ending the conflict with force before resuming talks.

The National Religious Party opposes establishment of a Palestinian state and advocates expanding Jewish settlements. NRP leaders said that as Cabinet members they would vote against creation of a Palestinian state, but they acknowledge that it is unlikely to be an issue immediately.

Sharon is trying to enlarge his majority by adding the ultra-nationalist National Union Party, which has seven seats. Negotiations stalled yesterday on the issue of Palestinian statehood. The party advocates expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said that Shinui can, in the short term, give Sharon's government the centrist voice it needs to be taken seriously by the international community on the Palestinian issue.

But, he said, should negotiations reach the point of requiring Israel to make concessions, such as pulling back troops or evacuating Jewish settlements, the government would not be likely to hold.

"Sharon would have to try and enlarge the government," Sandler said yesterday. "Right now, it is stable for the beginning but not for the long term."

Under the agreement proposed by Sharon, Likud ministers would fill the key Cabinet positions, including the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and finance.

The NRP would have two Cabinet posts, including housing, which has significant influence over the growth of settlements. Shinui is to get five Cabinet positions - science, environment, infrastructure, interior and justice.

Shinui leader Tommy Lapid said he is to become minister of justice, putting him in charge of appointments to rabbinical courts. He also will serve as deputy prime minister and have a seat on Sharon's inner Cabinet.

Excluded from this government are two parties representing the ultra-Orthodox - Shas and United Torah Judaism. Yesterday, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced Sharon as "the prime minister of garbage cans" for excluding his party.

Reflecting Shinui's new influence as a result of its third-place finish in the parliamentary elections, the new government is committed to altering, but not necessarily repealing, laws that give Jewish seminary students exemptions from military service. It is also committed to abolishing the Religious Affairs Ministry and to studying ways to recognize nonreligious marriages.

The moves are sure to exacerbate tensions between the country's secular and religious populations. NRP Chairman Effie Eitam has met several times in recent days with Lapid and said the NRP would act as a bridge between the two groups.

Because of a budget crisis, the new government will also have to make drastic cuts in government programs. Much of those savings may come from programs that now aid the ultra-Orthodox, such as benefits for large families.

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