- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon swung his government sharply to the right yesterday, adding the ultrahard-line National Union bloc to his ruling coalition in a move that Palestinian officials said would kill any chance for renewing peace talks.
The deal with the National Union, which strongly opposes creation of a Palestinian state, increases Mr. Sharon's majority in the 120-seat Knesset from one to eight but is likely to complicate any reopening of the Middle East peace process.
The coalition put together by the recently re-elected prime minister drew criticism from Palestinians and leftists even before the entry of the National Union.
Mr. Sharon already could rely on the support of the 15 Knesset members of the secular Shinui party and the six from the National Religious Party, which favors more Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, as well as the 40 of his own conservative Likud. He now adds the seven lawmakers of the National Union bloc.
Shinui's enlistment has caused fury among Likud's longtime allies in Shas, the main ultra-Orthodox movement, because Shinui opposes government favoritism toward religious Jews.
The new coalition also came under fire from the center-left Labor Party after Mr. Sharon signed on the National Religious Party (NRP), representing Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
Israeli media said the deal with the National Union resembled the coalition accord with the NRP, sidestepping the thorny issue of Palestinian statehood by agreeing the issue would be brought before the Cabinet only "if and when it becomes relevant."
NRP leader Effi Eitam said the Palestinians would be unlikely to achieve the reforms necessary for statehood, including ousting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during the new government's term.
Mr. Sharon's coalition building puts Labor firmly in opposition, where it will have to deal with deep internal divisions over the refusal of its dovish leader, Amram Mitzna, to join the new national unity government.
On the Palestinian side, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat predicted the new coalition would smother any chance for peace.
"This agreement means the next government will be unable to produce any balanced policies on the peace process. There will be no chance left for peace," he told Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Sharon is set to present his new coalition to parliament tomorrow.
Army radio reported that Mr. Sharon had proposed stopping deadly raids into the Gaza Strip if Palestinian militants ended their attacks and asked Dan Meridor, a Likud moderate, to pursue the proposal with the United States and other countries.
Mr. Meridor told the radio station there was "a clear interest for the Palestinians to put an end to the crazy attacks by Hamas," the Islamic militia that had fired homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel, causing little damage but provoking devastating Israeli retaliation.
He hinted that he was in contact with Palestinian officials, but repeated the government view that Mr. Arafat was no longer a viable partner for peace.
Meanwhile, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and 10 other Palestinians wounded when Israeli tanks opened fire on the town of Rafah, in the south of the territory.
In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, another Palestinian died of wounds sustained a week ago when Israeli troops arresting a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) opened fire on a group of people throwing stones.


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