- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

JERUSALEM Ariel Sharon took office as prime minister yesterday, presenting to parliament the biggest and most disparate government in Israel's history to confront the threat from a 5-month-old uprising in the occupied territories.
The 73-year-old retired general inherits one of the gravest security situations Israel has known in decades, along with a peace process with the Palestinians that has all but collapsed.
Five months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have left more than 400 people dead, a majority of them Palestinian.
Mr. Sharon, who assumed power after a 72-21 vote in the Knesset, or parliament, said his national unity coalition is ready for peace with the Palestinians if they "abandon the way of violence, terrorism and incitement."
Security officials, however, predicted that Palestinians would stage more bombings and shootings. Israelis stayed away from shopping malls and other public places fearing new attacks.
Before he can revive peacemaking, Mr. Sharon will have to forge a consensus in his Cabinet between those ministers who believe Palestinians should get a state of their own and others who want to expel them en masse from the West Bank and Gaza.
In a politically conciliatory speech before his government was sworn in, Mr. Sharon said peace with the Palestinians would require "painful compromises." But he said he would conduct no negotiations until the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ceased.
"I believe we can, if there is a will on both sides, take a detour from the bitter path of blood in which we are marching. Our hand is extended in peace," said Mr. Sharon, whose record until a month ago had been characterized largely by his opposition to nearly all of Israel's peace deals with the Arabs.
"We know that peace entails painful compromises by both sides. Sadly, despite significant concessions on the road to peace by all Israeli governments in the past years, we have yet to discover a readiness on the other side for conciliation and true peace."
The White House announced yesterday that Mr. Sharon would visit Washington for a meeting with President Bush on March 20.
During the four weeks of political haggling since the Feb. 6 election, Mr. Sharon managed to pull together a government that includes both his conservative Likud party and the left-leaning Labor, along with five smaller parliamentary factions.
Together, they give him a 73-seat coalition in the 120-member parliament, a much larger majority than his predecessor, Ehud Barak, had during most of his 20 months in office.
Analysts predicted the alliance would be rocky at times but would give Mr. Sharon more political stability than he would have had with a narrow, conservative government.
"I think given the fractious nature of parliament, this coalition gives him more durability than other possible combinations," said political analyst Avraham Diskin.
He said the breakdown in talks with the Palestinians and the violence in the West Bank and Gaza had helped bring Israel's usually antagonistic left- and right-wing camps closer to the center. That would allow the Labor-Likud partnership to last for some time, he said.
As recently as July, Israelis and Palestinians appeared on the verge of a final peace agreement that would end decades of enmity and war.
But when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected what Israelis viewed as an exceptionally generous offer by Mr. Barak at Camp David, and later failed to end an outburst of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, even the most liberal Israelis became disillusioned.
The result was the most lopsided election result in Israel's history: Mr. Sharon, once a nearly washed-up politician with a penchant for military adventurism, thrashed Mr. Barak by 25 percentage points.
But Mr. Sharon made good on an election promise to include Mr. Barak's Labor party in his coalition, appointing the chief engineer of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Shimon Peres, as his foreign minister.
Mr. Peres says government guidelines negotiated by the two parties guarantee peace moves will continue, though some of the phrasing was vague enough to allow parties on the extreme right to join the coalition.
The guidelines refer to the hallowed political formula of trading land for peace with the Palestinians, though the document does not specify how much land.
No mention is made of whether Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza will continue growing at a pace that has exasperated Palestinians.
Palestinians said they would judge Mr. Sharon's new government based on that and other issues, including a security-motivated closure of the West Bank and Gaza that has prevented Palestinians from reaching jobs in Israel for months.
"It's a moment of choice for the new Israeli government, a choice between a continuation of dialogue with the Palestinians or the continuation of a policy of siege, of threats and pushing this process into a new escalation," Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
Other Palestinians were less inclined to give Mr. Sharon a chance.
The Islamic militant Hamas group said this week it had lined up 10 volunteers for suicide attacks and pledged to wreak havoc on Israeli urban centers in the coming days. A Hamas bombing Sunday in the central city of Netanya killed three persons.
Some analysts say Mr. Arafat lacks the political strength, if not the will, to prevent Palestinians from shooting at Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza or sending bombers to Israeli cities.
If this is the case, they say, Mr. Sharon's condition that Palestinians end the violence virtually guarantees that negotiations will never be revived.
When Mr. Sharon convenes his first Cabinet meeting next week, some of the country's most hard-line politicians will sit alongside Mr. Peres and other Labor party doves.


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