- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

JERUSALEM The Israeli government swung to the right yesterday when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed up as his first coalition partner the National Religious Party, a lobby for Jewish settlers that opposes a Palestinian state.
The move came as the Israeli army stepped up its incursion into Islamic militant strongholds, taking over part of the Gaza Strip that the group Hamas has used to fire homemade missiles into Israel. At least nine Palestinians were reported to have been killed.
Armored columns moved into the northern town of Beit Hanoun, destroying some buildings and commandeering others. Although raids into Gaza occur every week, the army this time appeared to be occupying a sizable area with the intention of staying.
"For the time being, we are there," a spokesman said. "We are trying to reduce the number of rockets being fired from this area."
The operation took place despite harsh criticism of Israel from the European Union, which has complained of "excessive use of force" by the army in a series of raids on Hamas strongholds.
Six Palestinians were reported killed in Beit Hanoun. Two more were said to have been killed in clashes in other parts of Gaza, while soldiers fatally shot a "suspicious" Arab man on the West Bank's boundary with Israel. A soldier was killed by a gunman near Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza.
The deaths raised to 43 the number of Palestinians killed in a week.
Israel's dovish Labor Party reacted to Mr. Sharon's choice of governing partner by breaking off coalition talks with him, saying there was no common ground with a "right-wing extremist government."
Mr. Sharon had said he wanted to form a national unity government, which would include Labor, to replace the one that collapsed in November. But this has never looked likely.
The coalition deal seems likely to rule out any significant peace moves. The National Religious Party (NRP) opposes dismantling settlements in the Palestinian territories. It fought the general election last month on a platform rejecting any Palestinian "political entity" west of the Jordan River.
The nucleus of the next coalition will be joined by the secular Shinui Party, which opposes any government role for the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, whose supporters are excused from army service.
Shinui has no quarrel with the NRP, whose supporters readily join the army.
This lineup gives Mr. Sharon the slimmest possible majority 61 votes in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, with 40 from his Likud Party, 15 from Shinui and six from the NRP.
He will face powerful opposition and also must explain to Washington his reliance on NRP votes after committing himself to backing President Bush's plan for a Palestinian state by 2005.
However, with world attention focused on Iraq, there is unlikely to be serious pressure to resume peace talks with the Palestinians soon.

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