Begin Hints He Will Name Sharon Defense Chief Despite Controversy

Premier Menachem Begin hinted strongly last night that he intends to name Ariel Sharon Defense Minister in a new Likud government despite the bitter controversy surrounding the ultra-hawkish Yom Kippur War hero. He said, on a television panel interview, that he believed the appointment would not now encounter the overwhelming opposition raised within the Cabinet a year ago when he favored Sharon for the defense post just vacated by Ezar Weizman.

Begin declined to say flatly that he has decided to appoint Sharon, observing that he would name his Cabinet members only after he receives a formal “call” from President Yitzhak Navon to form a new government. Navon will begin consultations next Monday with representatives of various parties in an effort to form a new coalition government.

The final official results of last month’s elections were issued today. They showed that Likud has 48 seats; Labor, 47; National Religious Party, 6; Aguda Israel, 4; Hadash (Communists) 4; Tami, 3; Tehiya, 3; Telem, 2; Shinui, 2; Citizens Rights Movement, I.

Begin also made clear his personal sympathy for the primacy of Orthodox Judaism in Israel. He claimed that the “Jewish religion and Jewish nationhood are one and the same thing” and that he has always favored a halachic definition of conversion “because conversion is a purely halachic concept.”

This placed him squarely on the side of the National Religious Party and Aguda Israel which are demanding that the next Knesset amend the Law of Return to define a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi “according to halacha.” The NRP and Aguda have made it their price for joining a new Likud-led coalition government.

But the proposed amendment has raised a storm of protest from leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism particularly in the U.S. who see it as enshrining in law, the narrow and restrictive interpretation of Halacha by an Orthodox establishment that represents a minority of Israel’s population. The NRP and Aguda together won only 10 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

But Begin indicated that he would support other Aguda and NRP demands. He said he personally favored stricter Sabbath observance, though he thought this should be effected “by persuasion, not by coercion.” He conceded that it was “unrealistic” to demand that Israelis forego their weekly football games on Saturday since it is the only non-working day in Israel. Similarly, he didn’t think the city of Haifa should be deprived of public transportation on Saturday because the running of busses there was a “tradition of decades.”

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