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Sharon Proffers a Post to a Rival

Israeli premier asks predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu to become foreign minister.

November 02, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, moving to fill a key post in his new government, met Friday with longtime rival Benjamin Netanyahu and reportedly offered him the job of foreign minister.

The prime minister summoned Netanyahu to his sheep ranch in the Negev desert for several hours of talks that ended as the Jewish Sabbath was beginning. The two men were to meet again Sunday, when the Israeli workweek commences. Israeli media said Netanyahu had asked for time to think about Sharon's offer.

After 20 months, the conservative Sharon's political partnership with the left-leaning Labor Party collapsed Wednesday, forcing him to scramble to fill important Cabinet posts and find new parliamentary allies.

His aides were said to be making overtures to far-right and religious parties to secure the half-dozen seats he needs to again secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Sharon said the government's major policies will not change as a result of his new coalition, although most of his potential partners oppose peace overtures toward the Palestinians and advocate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu and Sharon, both stalwarts of the conservative Likud Party, have a complicated personal and political history, during which each has often seized on the opportunity to publicly humiliate the other.

Sharon served as foreign minister during Netanyahu's 1996-99 tenure as prime minister. During that time, Netanyahu kept Sharon on a short leash, reining him in sharply when he spoke out on policy issues.

In May, Netanyahu dealt Sharon a major political defeat when, at a party convention, he pushed through a resolution ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state, over Sharon's objections.

On that occasion, the two sat side by side without speaking. A commentary in the Israeli daily Haaretz likened the feuding between two such strong-willed figures to the "eruption of a terrifying volcano."

For Sharon, bringing Netanyahu into his government would help neutralize his principal rival for the Likud leadership.

The 53-year-old Netanyahu, universally known in Israel as "Bibi," had indicated that he intended to mount a primary challenge to Sharon in advance of national elections. If he was a member of Sharon's government, such a challenge would be far more difficult.

The Foreign Ministry is perhaps the most tempting post Sharon could offer Netanyahu, because it would be a forum from which the articulate, U.S.-educated former prime minister could serve as a highly visible advocate of Israeli policy. The foreign minister's job is being vacated by Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The shape of Sharon's new Cabinet was expected to become clearer in coming days.

He has already offered the Defense Ministry, a key portfolio during this time of bitter conflict with the Palestinians, to Shaul Mofaz, until recently the army chief of staff and the architect of harsh Israeli military measures in the West Bank and Gaza. The outgoing defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, led the Labor walkout from Sharon's coalition.

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