- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

JERUSALEM Benjamin Netanyahu was approved as Israel's foreign minister yesterday, bringing him into the Cabinet of the man he seeks to succeed as prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Opinion polls gave Mr. Sharon the edge in their rivalry.

Polls also suggested that Mr. Sharon's right-wing Likud party would make strong gains over the moderate Labor Party in the January election that Mr. Sharon called a day earlier, sending Israel into a turbulent campaign.

Before the general vote, both parties will hold primaries to choose a leader and candidate for prime minister.

In Likud, Mr. Sharon leads Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, 44 percent to 38 percent, according to a poll by the Dahaf Institute published in the Yediot Ahronot daily. The survey had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Despite the rivalry, Mr. Netanyahu agreed to Mr. Sharon's request to serve as foreign minister in the caretaker government, and the appointment was approved by parliament yesterday, in a 61-31 vote, with five abstentions.

No date has been set for the Likud primary. Mr. Sharon wants to hold it as quickly as possible, perhaps by late November, while Mr. Netanyahu wants more time to campaign among party members.

Speaking to reporters in parliament minutes after being sworn in, Mr. Netanyahu said he proposed that he and Mr. Sharon make a joint statement that the winner of Likud's leadership race would have the support of the other.

Mr. Netanyahu said he saw no problem in working with Mr. Sharon before or after the Likud primaries.

"Both of us have served as foreign minister, both of us have served as prime minister and I have no doubt that we can work perfectly well together," he said.

In Labor's Nov. 19 contest, party chief Binyamin Ben-Eliezer faces two dovish candidates, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and legislator Haim Ramon.

Mr. Mitzna, who leads the trio in polls among party members, said yesterday that as party chief he would not lead Labor into another coalition with Likud.

Many Labor members have sharply criticized Mr. Ben-Eliezer for serving as Mr. Sharon's defense minister for the past 20 months and overseeing major incursions against Palestinian militants.

Labor bolted last week, after Mr. Sharon rejected Mr. Ben-Eliezer's demand to cut funding to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, six days after Labor's departure, Mr. Sharon called early elections, saying he had not been able to restore a stable parliamentary majority.

The Dahaf poll indicated that Mr. Sharon has the best chances of becoming prime minister. Under Israel's electoral system, voters choose a party, not a candidate. The party leader first able to form a stable coalition is named prime minister.

The survey among 550 Israeli adults indicated that Likud would win 33 seats in the 120-member parliament, up from 19, and emerge as the strongest party. Labor would lose seven seats and drop to 19, the poll said.

The vote is expected to be held Jan. 28, though legislators still have the option of moving the date forward by a week or two.

A central campaign issue will be how to approach the Palestinians.

Mr. Mitzna, for example, proposes restarting peace talks on establishing a Palestinian state despite two years of violence.

On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his view that Yasser Arafat should be expelled, possibly during a U.S. strike against Iraq.

"I think the most appropriate time [to exile Arafat] will be when Saddam Hussein is thrown out," Mr. Netanyahu told Israel TV.

Responding to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Arafat said yesterday: "No one can deport me from my homeland. They have to remember that they are dealing with Yasser Arafat."

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