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Sharon Is Named Foreign Minister

Israel: Hard-liner opposes larger withdrawal from West Bank. He will have lead role in talks with Palestinians in Washington.

October 10, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — With a crucial Middle East peace summit in Washington less than a week away, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named hawkish right-winger Ariel Sharon to the senior post of foreign minister Friday, giving him a lead role in sensitive negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sharon--who has vowed not to shake the hand of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat--will be in charge of talks aimed at reaching a final settlement, Netanyahu said.

The appointment angered many Palestinians and Israeli opposition politicians.

Once drummed from office for failing to prevent the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Lebanese refugee camps, Sharon is a fierce opponent of compromise with the Palestinians and an avid proponent of Jewish settlements in the contested West Bank.

"This is a very bad omen for the [final] permanent-status agreement," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Despite Sharon's hard-line style, however, his appointment was also seen as a signal that Netanyahu might be willing to reach at least partial agreement with Arafat at their summit next week with President Clinton, analysts here said.

The ascension of Sharon gives Netanyahu a way to mollify right-wing supporters who are threatening to topple the government if the prime minister makes too many concessions to the Palestinians.

Sharon was already serving as infrastructure minister in the Cabinet--a post created for him in 1996, when the right-religious coalition was in danger of collapsing--but by rewarding the 70-year-old veteran warrior with a more prominent post, Netanyahu apparently hopes to silence one of his most outspoken critics.

"In the short run, this is a move to protect his right flank," political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said. "But in the long run, it chains Netanyahu and makes him even more a hostage of the right wing."

Speaking on Israeli television late Friday, Sharon repeated his opposition to the Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13% of the West Bank, a U.S.-proposed formula that forms a basis for discussions at next week's summit. Relinquishing more than 9% of the land to Palestinian control will jeopardize Israeli security, Sharon said.

Netanyahu announced Sharon's appointment the day after meeting with leaders of the National Religious Party, who are pressuring the prime minister to protect 160 scattered Jewish settlements in any negotiation. The United States views the communities as an obstacle to the peace process, which is based on a land-for-peace formula.

The prime minister said Sharon is the "most suitable" person to take charge of final negotiations.

"He knows the pain of war and the fruits of peace," Netanyahu told a news conference.

Netanyahu had been acting as foreign minister since moderate David Levy quit in January in protest over government policy.

Sharon, a former army general and legendary war hero who led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was forced to quit as defense minister in 1983 after a government commission held him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian Lebanese militiamen in two refugee camps under Israeli control.

He remained active in Israeli politics, however, and in recent years has tried to rehabilitate his reputation and return to the upper echelons of government power.

"I believe that in my role as foreign minister I can assist in advancing Israel's policy, which is striving toward peace while maintaining and protecting Israel's vital interests and the security of Israelis everywhere," Sharon said in a statement read on Voice of Israel radio.

Known by the nickname "the Bulldozer" because of his bulky frame and hard-charging manner, Sharon has routinely characterized Arafat as a terrorist.

As recently as Sunday, he was quoted in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper as saying that he would not shake Arafat's hand "even if I will be appointed foreign minister and run the negotiations."

Although he eschews Arafat publicly, Sharon has met with senior Palestinian officials in recent months, and even some of his enemies have said privately that they at least respect his decisive consistency.

If an interim agreement is reached next week, it would end 19 months of stalemate and clear the way for negotiations to begin on a final accord aimed at resolving the most contentious elements of peace, including the status of Jerusalem. It is there that Sharon's role will become most nettlesome. He has argued in the past against relinquishing any additional land to the Palestinians and vehemently opposes an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Meanwhile, even as Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. negotiators haggled over the details of interim-agreement issues Friday, tensions in Israel soared with the killing of an Israeli soldier, allegedly by a Palestinian worker from a West Bank village.

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