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In Israel, Old Problems Confront New Coalition

Times Staff Writer

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s right-leaning government was sworn in early today, taking up the leadership of a country mired in conflict with the Palestinians, suffering its worst economic downturn in decades and holding its collective breath in the countdown to a prospective U.S.-led war with Iraq.

“The government I present today shall serve the entire people, and it is only the good of the state of Israel that will guide us,” the bespectacled 75-year-old prime minister told lawmakers as he presented his Cabinet for formal approval.

Watching somberly from their seats in the stone-lined parliament chamber were members of the dovish Labor Party, which had spurned Sharon’s repeated appeals to serve with him in government. Labor had joined Sharon’s government in his first term.

“We all hope for your success,” the party’s leader, Amram Mitzna, told Sharon from the podium, speaking nearly one month after Sharon’s conservative Likud dealt Labor a crushing electoral defeat.

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Mitzna departed from a statesmanlike tone only once -- with a pointed reminder that Sharon’s nearly two years in office have coincided with a time of national calamity. To Labor’s immense frustration, that fact did little to dent Sharon’s popularity with voters.

“You know better than anyone the difficult legacy you have inherited, a burdensome legacy of terror attacks and a sinking economy, bequeathed to you by your predecessor -- Ariel Sharon,” Mitzna said, while the prime minister listened impassively.

Critics describe the Sharon-assembled coalition as one of the most right-wing Israeli governments in recent memory.

Although its largest parties -- Likud, together with the secular-rights party Shinui -- are considered center-right, the prime minister also brought into the alliance a pair of the most far-right parties on the Israeli political scene to ensure himself a comfortable majority of 68 seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset.

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One of those parties, the National Union, advocates moving Palestinians en masse from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to neighboring Arab countries, and the other, the National Religious Party, is a champion of expanding Jewish settlements rather than moving to disband them, which many Israelis believe will be a necessary part of any peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Palestinians said they believed there was little possibility of restarting peace negotiations with such a government.

“We foresee more settlements, more occupation, more violence and more suffering for the Palestinian people,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. “The only thing missing will be a peace process.”

A day after President Bush urged Israel to work toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state, Sharon reiterated that he accepts the idea in principle. But as in the past, the prime minister listed stringent conditions that would have to be met for it to become a reality, including a cessation of violence and a change in Palestinian leadership.

“Should any process result in an outcome including a Palestinian state ... any arrangement reached in the future would have to ensure Israel’s historic, security and strategic interests,” he told lawmakers.

No new negotiations would begin without his Cabinet’s approval, he said.

The new government’s charter promises not to establish new Jewish settlements but contains vague language allowing for continued “development” of existing ones -- a justification that settlers have sometimes used to set up new outposts on surrounding Palestinian land.

The Bush administration has repeatedly urged a halt to settlement expansion. Most Palestinians consider the settlements to lie at the heart of their struggle with Israel, as they are built on land the Palestinians want for their future state.

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Some analysts said that if Sharon wanted to make any dramatic gestures toward the Palestinians, the makeup of his government would not necessarily prevent him from doing so.

“If Sharon wanted to resume negotiations, he would have the capacity to do so, because any meaningful step in this direction would be accompanied by support from the left-leaning parties,” said political scientist Ephraim Yaar of Tel Aviv University.

Sharon’s new coalition is the first Likud-led government to exclude Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties, who over their years in government had engineered large social subsidies for their devoutly religious constituency while maintaining tight rabbinical controls on matters such as marriage and divorce.

The prime minister drew loud heckling from members of the ultra-Orthodox parties when he spoke of the need to establish civil marriage -- a key demand of his new coalition partner, Shinui.

“I believe there is no state in the world ... in which many of its citizens cannot be married due to restrictions of religious law,” Sharon said, speaking calmly over angry shouts from bearded, kippa-wearing lawmakers.

While international pressure is mounting for some progress toward a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, particularly during the run-up toward possible war in Iraq, most Israelis consider the faltering economy to be the single most pressing issue facing them. Sharon promised to make that his top priority.

Even though most people here recognize that the punishing recession is linked to what is commonly referred to as “the situation” -- the 2 1/2-year conflict that has claimed more than 700 Israeli lives and more than 1,800 Palestinian ones -- Israelis are clamoring for measures to better their economic lot.

That troublesome task will fall largely to Benjamin Netanyahu, who reluctantly signed on as finance minister in the new government.

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Netanyahu had wanted to keep the much more prestigious job of foreign minister, his post in the caretaker government that had served since November, but Sharon gave him no choice.

Although the Knesset session began in the late afternoon, it was after midnight when the swearing-in finally took place, with new ministers called forward one by one to take the oath of office.

Any lawmaker wanting to speak beforehand had the opportunity to do so -- and in Israel’s traditionally talk-heavy political culture, about 40 lawmakers, a third of the Knesset, exercised that option. Lawmakers yawned and dozed in the benches.

Most of the ministers were sworn in together, but for technical reasons, several will take office early next week after the allocation of less senior Cabinet posts is finalized. Sharon also was expected to ask for an enlargement of the Cabinet from 22 to 23 ministers.


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