- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to keep his imperiled government afloat yesterday by bringing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the Cabinet, while Mr. Netanyahu set a tough condition for joining early elections.
Israel's two leading hard-line politicians, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu, are trying to work out an alliance while also battling each other to lead the Likud Party into the country's next general election.
The ballot must be held before November of next year, but could be brought forward to early next year if Mr. Sharon resigns or if his fragile coalition collapses in the coming days or weeks.
That could plunge Israel into even greater turmoil as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on and with the threat of a U.S. war with Iraq on the horizon.
In the complex rivalry between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu, both stressed their efforts to resolve the political crisis and played down any suggestion they were jockeying for advantage in the next election.
"I told [Mr. Sharon] that I'll be happy to serve as foreign minister on condition that we go to early elections," Mr. Netanyahu told Israeli television. "The right thing is to immediately go to new elections," he said, predicting that Likud would double its 19 seats in the 120-member parliament.
Mr. Sharon wants Mr. Netanyahu in the government, which could help stabilize the coalition. In addition, Mr. Netanyahu would presumably be subject to the discipline of Cabinet decisions, rather than having the freedom to criticize the government from the outside.
Mr. Sharon "praised the decision in principle by Mr. Netanyahu to join his government," the prime minister's office said in a statement. Mr. Netanyahu's demand for early elections was "being examined," Mr. Sharon's office added.
Mr. Netanyahu could harm his image if he flatly refused to join the government at a moment of crisis. But analysts said he is reluctant to serve under Mr. Sharon as the race for party leader intensifies.
Mr. Sharon is the current Likud leader, but a party primary must be held before the next general election.
Some polls have shown Mr. Netanyahu winning a head-to-head contest among Likud faithful. He would then be positioned to become the next prime minister, according to the polls that show Likud winning the largest number of seats in the next election, and the bloc of rightist and religious parties it leads winning a majority of all seats.
Mr. Sharon's broad-based coalition government lost its majority in parliament last week when the dovish Labor Party, the largest single faction, quit amid a dispute about funding to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The coalition now has 55 seats in the 120-seat parliament, making the government vulnerable to collapse. Several no-confidence motions are expected in parliament in coming days.
Sharon and his aides are looking to form an alliance with the far-right National Union-Israel Beiteinu party, which has seven seats, enough to give the government a narrow majority.
National Union leaders met yesterday with Mr. Sharon's Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, to discuss joining the government. No decision was reached, but more talks were planned.

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