- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

From combined dispatches
JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ousted hawkish Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a surprise move yesterday after forging a new rightist coalition likely to toughen Israel's line against a Palestinian uprising.
Silvan Shalom, until now finance minister, agreed to take on the Foreign Ministry in the coalition that Mr. Sharon began forming after his right-wing Likud party's election victory in January.
In a move clearly engineered to undermine his main rival in Likud, Mr. Sharon asked Mr. Netanyahu to be finance minister. The former prime minister, who challenged Mr. Sharon for the Likud leadership last year, refused the offer, a statement from Mr. Sharon's office said.
Mr. Shalom, 44, has little foreign policy experience. He is seen as loyal to Mr. Sharon, and his appointment is unlikely to bring big changes to Israel's foreign policy, foreign diplomats said.
"I don't think this will make much difference to foreign policy. Sharon will strengthen his grip on foreign policy with a weaker person as foreign minister," a senior European diplomat told Reuters news agency.
Mr. Netanyahu's future is now up in the air. Israeli news media said a senior Sharon aide had telephoned Mr. Netanyahu, urging him to reconsider his rejection of the Finance Ministry post and leaving open the possibility that he might remain in government.
If that failed, Mr. Sharon is expected to offer the Finance Ministry to Likud ally Ehud Olmert. Mr. Sharon said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Education Minister Limor Livnat would remain in their current posts.
Likud reached a coalition deal early yesterday with the centrist Shinui party, the ultranationalist National Union party and the National Religious Party, a champion of Jewish settlements on occupied land.
The coalition parties signed an agreement giving Mr. Sharon a government with 68 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
The inclusion of the right-wing parties will increase pressure on Mr. Sharon to take an even tougher line against the Palestinians and could make it even harder for international mediators to end 29 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Mr. Sharon, who turned 75 yesterday, is expected to present the coalition to parliament, the Knesset, today. The new government's main tasks will be to tackle the Palestinian uprising and confront a worsening domestic recession.
President Bush called Mr. Sharon to greet him on his birthday, and "expressed hope that after a possible U.S. attack against Iraq, there will be progress in the Middle East peace process," Agence France-Presse quoted an Israeli government statement as saying.
There was no immediate word of new violence in the West Bank or Gaza Strip yesterday. A rare snowstorm that kept Jerusalem blanketed for a second day also hit the West Bank.


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