- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Cabinet ministers from the Likud Party were to resign from the coalition government today, signaling an end to a weeklong political cease-fire following the massive stroke that felled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The return to politics-as-usual began yesterday, with parties trading bitter slurs over whether to allow Palestinians to vote in their own elections in East Jerusalem this month and a suggestion that Mr. Sharon’s name may remain atop his party’s list of candidates for parliamentary elections in March.

Mr. Sharon’s doctors reported “further slight improvement” in the ailing leader but cautioned that he could remain in the hospital for months.

Senior Hadassah hospital official Dr. Yair Birenbaum said it was “a little too soon” to say he is out of danger, while another doctor said he “can die tonight [or] go back to normal, relatively normal, life in six months.”

Nevertheless, a new poll showed Mr. Sharon’s recently formed Kadima party is a strong favorite to form the next government, even with his likely successor, Ehud Olmert, at the helm.

Channel Two said Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had told his party members to go ahead with the Cabinet resignations, which had been planned for earlier in the week but were postponed after Mr. Sharon’s stroke.

The step will have little practical impact on the government, which will serve only as a caretaker until the March elections. Likud hopes to sharpen the distinctions between itself and Kadima as it goes into the campaign.

Labor had already withdrawn its ministers from the Cabinet, meaning the government will be reduced to just six ministers after today.

Tempers flared earlier yesterday in response to suggestions from some of Mr. Sharon’s allies that his name could remain at the top of Kadima’s list of candidates.

Politicians from both Likud and Labor accused the centrist party of cynically exploiting the prime minister’s name, acutely sensitive that Mr. Sharon’s plight is liable to attract a large sympathy vote for his party.

Polls in the Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv dailies found that Kadima led by Mr. Olmert would take 44 to 45 seats in the 120-seat parliament, up from previous polls. The Labor Party under Amir Peretz would get 16 to 18 seats while Likud would get 13 to 15, the surveys found.

“As someone who knows and values Sharon, it pains me that there are various elements around him who are trying to make a political fortune on the back of his illness,” said Likud legislator Moshe Kahlon.

Mr. Peretz, who had previously instructed Labor activists to avoid strong campaign rhetoric, promptly reversed his decision.

“The election is starting right now. This is the first phase of the election,” he told reporters at the party’s election headquarters just outside Tel Aviv, now open for business.

Likud members, meanwhile, reacted angrily to an announcement by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that the government has agreed in principle to let Arab residents of East Jerusalem participate in this month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Mr. Sharon, before his stroke, had threatened to block voting in the city as long as the militant Palestinian movement Hamas was running candidates.

The United States has pressed Israel not to interfere in the balloting but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday raised her strongest objections yet to the participation of Hamas, which is mounting a strong challenge to President Mahmoud Abbas’ disorganized Fatah party.

“It remains the view of the United States that there should be no place in the political process for groups or individuals who refuse to renounce terror and violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and disarm,” she said in Washington.

Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis over the past five years and is considered a terrorist group by the United States. But it remains popular with Palestinians, largely because of its charity work and the provision of basic services that Fatah has failed to provide.

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