- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 7 (UPI) — Israel's head of state, President Moshe Katsav, has invited its head of government, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to a Sunday afternoon meeting in which Katsav said he intends to impose upon Sharon "the task of forming a new government."

The appointment as delineated by Israeli law will launch the formal process of negotiations with several parties after days in which negotiators held "cafeteria-like talks of examining the field," as one source close to Sharon told United Press International.

The appointment will also start a clock ticking. Sharon will have a maximum 42 days to present a government, or he may otherwise see Katsav ask someone else to try his hand.

At the moment it seems Sharon need not worry. Katsav this week consulted all the parties in the new Knesset and concluded that 87 members in the 120-member legislature recommended Sharon for the premiership. There was no other nominee following the Likud Party's decisive victory in the Jan. 28 elections.

The Ha'aretz newspaper Friday quoted Sharon as having said that even his secretary can form a narrow-based government within five minutes. The parties in his present, caretaker government, command a narrow majority already in the new Knesset with 62 seats.

But Sharon is banking on being able to marshal broader-based support and hopes for a national unity government like he held together until last October, when his party's main rival the Labor Party quit the coalition, ostensibly over a budget dispute. That break-up ultimately led to the new elections.

On election night, facing cheering supporters in the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, he declared: "After the president places the task of assembling the new government in my hands, I will appeal to all the Zionist parties to join the widest possible national unity government. This is the will of the people."

Its basis, Sharon added, would be the principles the Likud and the Labor parties concluded in March 2001 when they formed the previous national unity government. But the task of bringing the divergent parties together is daunting; the trick seems to be a claim that the Palestinian intifada, the war in Iraq, and deteriorating economy created an emergency where all minor differences must be cast aside.

Eyal Arad, a member of Sharon's negotiating team, told UPI on Friday that the war in Iraq will open a window of opportunity "to resume the peace process and reach an agreement with the Palestinians after (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat (is shunted aside)."

The government must also save the economy that is heading towards "an Argentina," he added. Between security troubles and the loss of labor force, Israeli industries from tourism to agriculture have been hard-hit since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, ignited in September 2000.

The Ha'aretz newspaper's political reporter, Hanna Kim, put it differently: Sharon wants a broad flak jacket with which to defend himself against U.S. President George W. Bush's roadmap for a settlement with the Palestinians and to cope with economic catastrophe.

Sharon has repeatedly said he accepted the Bush plan but has heaped many conditions for that acceptance.

But Sharon's more immediate problem is that the Labor Party, which emerged second in the elections with half the 38 votes the Likud won, has repeatedly and vehemently turned down Sharon's invitation to join a coalition with his party.

"There is no (common) basis for going together," Labor leader Amram Mitzna said after meeting Sharon. One contentious point is the two parties' substantially different views on Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. Labor sees many of them as unnecessarily exacerbating the conflict.

"When I heard from Sharon, for the umpteenth time, the strategic importance of Netsarim (an isolated settlement south of Gaza City), the inability to evacuate it, the historic importance of the entire Katif (settlement) block and the (isolated settlement of) Kfar Darom, I realized we do not even have a preliminary, immediate basis to go together and cope with the serious issues on the agenda," Mitzna said.

On Thursday the Labor Party's Leadership Bureau unanimously decided not to join a Sharon-led government and not to appoint negotiating teams "because there is no basis for negotiations."

The centrist Shinui Party, which emerged third in the elections with 15 mandates, appears eager to join the government. However, Shinui seems to have tied its own hands. Shinui insisted on forming a secular government that would include Likud and Labor, and insisted it would not sit in a Cabinet with the orthodox Shas Party whose rabbis came from Arab countries. Shas is part of Sharon's current coalition.

Thursday Katsav offered Shinui's leader, Tommy Lapid, a ladder to climb down by appealing to the party to reconsider its position.

But "I cannot accept the appeal," Lapid told reporters. Shas has corrupted the ministries it controlled and "we cannot cooperate with the ultra-orthodox," he insisted.

Lapid's comments were not a complete or ironclad rejection of all religious parties. The National Religious Party was acceptable because its people work and its men serve in the army. Lapid also found an exception for the ultra-orthodox party Torah Judaism, guided by rabbis who came from Europe. Torah Judaism members do not join the Cabinet so as not to share responsibility for breaking Jewish religious laws. Instead they become deputy ministers and assume the chairmanship of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee — a major difference from Shas's behavior, Lapid argued.

Shinui meanwhile took up quarter-page advertisements blasting Labor for rejecting Sharon's invitation, "preferring narrow party interests over the opportunity to change the character of the Israeli society."

That's the kind of pressure Likud wants to build on Labor: "The parties have to find the right formulas to get Israel out of the crisis and later we can return to the old quarrels," Arad said.

To that end the Russian immigrants' Knesset faction, Yisrael Baaliya, on Thursday merged with the Likud. The faction now comprises 40 members, one-third of the parliament.

"One might say Yisrael Baaliyah completed its historic role," Natan Sharansky, the party's leader, said. Saharnsky came to Israel in February 1986, after serving nine years in Soviet jails for Zionist activities. He appealed to Russian immigrants and in 1999 his main election slogan was in Russian, not Hebrew. "Nash kontrol" ("Our control"), it said.

Yisrael Baaliyah won seven mandates in the 1996 elections and six in 1999. But last month the immigrants migrated toward regular Israeli parties and left Yisrael Baaliya with only two mandates.

The National Religious Party seems likely to join Sharon's government. It is a Zionist movement, largely backed by settlers, and its members serve in the army. Party leader Effie Eitam, an outstanding hawk, opposes Palestinian statehood, something Sharon says he favors, but Eitam said, "We can fight it within the government."

Eitam has argued Bush's plan does not give a categorical "yes" to Palestinian statehood but first calls for Palestinian reforms and for fighting terror. Its timetable is not clear, he added — all in all, a description that analysts have suggested is designed to pave his party's way into the coalition.

Indeed, "we need clarifications from Arik (Sharon) and then decide, not now," a source close to Eitam said.

Shas, which controls 11 seats, is also willing to join the coalition. "The guidelines of the previous (government) are a good basis," party spokesman Itzik Sudri told UPI.

The problem seems to be Shinui's "us or Shas" stance, but Shas is also antagonistic toward Shinui. Sudri said the religious parties have agreed to coordinate their efforts to block Shinui's attempts to secularize Israel, for example. No religious party could accept Shinui's demands and the coordination will cover "everything related to maintaining the status quo on religious matters," he added.

Shas and Torah Judaism together have 16 mandates, one more than Shinui.

Sharon has more in common with Shinui's Lapid than with the ultra-orthodox, however. Both are in their 70s and secular; their cultural background is European, they like classical music, good food, and are charismatic and with a sense of humor.

However, Shas is a disciplined party and its Knesset members can be counted to vote as their religious leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef commands. That is an advantage especially when the coalition has a narrow majority. Some of the Shinui Knesset members came from the dovish side of the political map.

Moreover, Likud members usually have respect for Jewish tradition.

If the negotiators will not find a way to paper over the differences between Shinui and the religious parties, Sharon might have to choose.

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