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Sharon Picks Hard-Line Defense Chief

Choice of Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz may signal a move to the far right by the Israeli government.

November 01, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday picked as his new defense minister a former army chief of staff who takes an even harder line toward the Palestinians than does the Israeli leader.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, whose selection as defense chief is expected to be officially announced next week, caused a stir last spring when he was caught on an open TV microphone urging Sharon to expel Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

As chief of staff, Mofaz presided over Israel's seizing of West Bank cities and towns in response to a string of suicide bombings and other attacks launched from the Palestinian territories by militant groups.

As Sharon moved Thursday to replace ministers from the left-leaning Labor Party who abandoned his governing coalition a day earlier, a thunderous explosion rocked a crowded neighborhood in Gaza City, killing at least three members of the military wing of the militant group Hamas, one of them a senior figure in the organization.

Six people were reported wounded, four of them civilians and the other two members of Hamas. The blast was apparently a "work accident" -- the term used by both sides to describe explosives going off prematurely while being assembled or transported.

The choice of Mofaz as defense minister could be an early signal of what analysts have predicted will be a pronounced move to the right by Sharon's government in the absence of Labor's moderating influence.

Sharon is expected to turn to far-right and religious parties, most of which oppose any peace overtures toward the Palestinians, to regain a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Mofaz, whose term as chief of staff ended in July, is so unpopular among Palestinians that his effigy is sometimes burned at rallies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with that of Sharon.

Israeli newspapers reported Thursday that Mofaz had cut short a trip to London because a lawyer representing a group of Palestinians has filed a complaint against him in Britain, accusing him of war crimes.

Israel has consistently defended its tactics during the more than 2-year-old Palestinian uprising, saying measures such as assassinations of militant leaders and large-scale army incursions into Palestinian cities are the only way to halt terrorist attacks on Israelis.

Palestinians expressed misgivings Thursday about the selection of Mofaz, saying it would lead to an intensification of violence. Arafat, interviewed on the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, denounced Mofaz and his successor as chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, together with the prime minister.

"Mofaz on one side, Yaalon on the other and Sharon above them -- what do you imagine will happen in the region?" Arafat asked.

Mofaz has said publicly that he considers Arafat an architect of terror. In urging the expulsion of the Palestinian leader during fierce fighting by the two sides last spring, he advocated a course rejected by other senior Israeli officials as too extreme and too politically difficult.

"We should kick him out," Mofaz told Sharon in April as the two waited for a television interview to begin, unaware that the microphone was live.

"I know, I know," Sharon replied. Mofaz pressed him: "This is a chance we won't get again."

The appointment, along with Sharon's other Cabinet nominees, will require the approval of the governing coalition and the Knesset. Those votes are expected next week.

Weakened by the departure of Labor, the prime minister will have to start fending off parliamentary challenges almost immediately. The left-leaning Meretz Party said it would press a no-confidence motion Monday, although the move was given little chance of succeeding. It also said it would challenge Mofaz's appointment.

The collapse of Sharon's broad-based alliance with the Labor Party reinvigorated debate about politics Israeli style, in which short-lived governing coalitions are the norm.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose coalition managed to stay afloat for less than two years, suggested that it might be time to rethink the country's system of government.

"We are witnessing a gradual deterioration of the patterns of political behavior in this country," he told Israel Radio.

"The reason for this is that on every issue that is crucial to the nation, special-interest groups have the power to create pinpointed pressure and bring the government down.... I think this ability to topple governments easily works against our long-term interests."

Among the four Cabinet posts vacated by Labor is the foreign minister's job, which was held by Shimon Peres.

On Thursday evening, Israel's Channel Two quoted sources in Sharon's conservative Likud Party as saying that one of the candidates under consideration for the job is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's longtime rival.

Bringing Netanyahu into the government would help neutralize him as a potential leadership challenger.

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