- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

JERUSALEM Trying to keep his coalition from unraveling after a defection from the right, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned ultranationalists yesterday that if they bring him down, they'll only help Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"You made his [Mr. Arafats] day," an angry Mr. Sharon told his former allies in a speech on the opening of parliament's winter session.
The first crack in Mr. Sharon's broad-based government appeared yesterday when the National Union party said it was leaving because of the pullback of Israeli troops from some Palestinian areas.
It signaled a growing division over a U.S.-led push toward a return to peace talks with the Palestinians.
[In London yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr. Arafat introduced a new Middle East peace initiative calling for a resumption of negotiations with Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state.
["A viable Palestinian state, as part of a negotiated and agreed settlement which guarantees peace and security for Israel, is the objective," Mr. Blair said at a joint news conference, echoing comments from President Bush.]
The Israeli pullback yesterday from Hebron was counterpointed by violence. For the second straight day, an Islamic militant with the Hamas movement was killed in the West Bank, this time in a car explosion in Nablus.
Palestinians blamed Israel. But Israel, which took responsibility for a killing Sunday, refused to say whether it was behind yesterday's attack.
The departure of the National Union, which has seven seats in the 120-member parliament, from the eight-party coalition, did not rob Mr. Sharon of his majority his coalition still controls 78 seats in the legislature. However, the defection served as a warning that his government can quickly unravel if he resumes peace talks with the Palestinians.
The National Union left after the government carried out one of its truce promises a troop pullback yesterday from two Palestinian neighborhoods in the West Bank town of Hebron. Israel seized the areas 10 days earlier to stop shooting on Jewish settler enclaves.
Party leaders said they also quit to protest perceived U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials confirmed last week that the United States is working on a peace initiative that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state with a foothold in Jerusalem. U.S. officials have not commented on the details, but have said the plan might be made public during the annual U.N. General Assembly session next month.
The United States is trying to cultivate Arab support as it retaliates for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Several Arab leaders have said it is important for them to see progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his parliament speech, Mr. Sharon tried to allay concerns of his traditional right-wing constituency. "I am not subject to any pressure, and I do not intend to make any compromise on issues that endanger Israel's security," Mr. Sharon said.
He warned that twice in the past decade, the defections of hard-liners from right-wing governments have brought dovish parties to power and led to Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
"I ask you, my friends, what do you want?" he said. "A campaign against terror or an election campaign."
Turning to the National Union leaders, Mr. Sharon said: "You have caused me great distress. To Arafat, on the other hand, you have given great satisfaction. You made his day."
However, one of the National Union's leaders, Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, said Mr. Sharon was going back on his promises. "We do not want to be in the Oslo government," Mr. Zeevi said, referring to the interim peace accords signed by Mr. Sharon's predecessors and named after the Norwegian capital.
A dispute also broke out between the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, and his boss, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer against the backdrop of the Hebron pullback.
On Sunday, Gen. Mofaz issued a statement saying he opposed the pullback because it might endanger the lives of Israeli civilians and soldiers. Army commanders are routinely consulted by the government about security matters, but are not permitted to voice public criticism of Cabinet decisions.
On Sunday, Mr. Ben-Eliezer announced he had reprimanded Gen. Mofaz, who has nine months left of his four-year term.
Several newspaper commentators and dovish politicians, including Labor legislator Yossi Beilin, demanded that Gen. Mofaz resign.

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