- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

JERUSALEM Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized his new boss on his first full day on the job, saying Israel had fallen into "dire straits" under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Sharon are engaged in a complex political battle they are working together in a caretaker government, yet they are also rivals, with each man seeking to lead the Likud party into national elections in January.

In an interview yesterday in the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Netanyahu attacked Mr. Sharon's 20-month tenure as prime minister, saying he had been unable to bring an end to Palestinian attacks.

"I think one of the things we see is the tremendous escalation of terror," Mr. Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "The country is in dire straits and we have to get it out," he added.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu met Wednesday, shortly after Mr. Netanyahu was sworn in. They reportedly sparred over a U.S.-backed peace plan that Mr. Sharon tentatively had embraced. Mr. Netanyahu said the plan was "not relevant" as long as U.S. military action in Iraq was pending.

Mr. Netanyahu also spoke to U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, but they did not discuss the American "road map" for peace, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ron Prosor.

He said the peace plan was clearly on hold until Israeli elections, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 28.

Nonetheless, U.S. envoy David Satterfield will visit the region next week to promote the plan, which also has the backing of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

A walkout by the Labor Party last week led to the collapse of Mr. Sharon's coalition government. Left without a majority, Mr. Sharon was forced to call early elections.

Yesterday, Mr. Sharon told business leaders he would not let anyone threaten Israel's relationship with the United States. Mr. Sharon has been to the White House seven times and received strong backing from President Bush.

"I would not hurt the deep strategic understandings with the United States and the special relationship that has been woven with the American government," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu said he had "semantic" differences with Mr. Bush's outline for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, an idea Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly has said he opposes.

"The ability to have certain sovereign powers that have nothing to do with self-determination must be withheld" from the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu said.

Also yesterday, a suspected Palestinian suicide bomber and an apparent accomplice were killed in an explosion at a military checkpoint near the Jewish settlement of Kedumim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, the army said.

The suspected bomber, one of three Palestinians in a taxi stopped at the checkpoint, was wearing an explosive belt and yelled "Allahu akbar" (God is great) as he ran toward the troops, who fired at the man, the army said. The belt exploded, killing the second man and injuring the third.

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