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Sharon Joins Government As Infrastructure Minister

Israel’s premier averted a potential crisis in the Cabinet this week by bringing Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon into the government as minister of infrastructure.

Benjamin Netanyahu made the move just before he left Monday for his first official visit to the United States as prime minister, delaying his departure by two hours to get Sharon’s position finalized by the government.

The Knesset approved the appointment Monday in a 58-33 vote, with one abstention.

The possibility that Sharon would remain outside the government while Netanyahu was abroad could have created some problems back at home.

At the top of the list was Foreign Minister David Levy’s threat to leave the government if Sharon was not appointed prior to Netanyahu’s departure. Sharon had forged Levy’s political alliance with Netanyahu.

The appointment of the former general will likely displease both the Arabs and Israel’s main ally, the United States.

As defense minister in 1982, Sharon led Israel’s forces into its costly war in Lebanon. In 1983, he was forced to quit after an Israeli inquiry committee found him indirectly responsible for the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the invasion.

In the early 1990s, as housing minister, Sharon spearheaded a Jewish settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sharon’s portfolio in Netanyahu’s Cabinet was created after other ministers reluctantly gave up some of the responsibilities that had been under their control.

The new ministry will oversee the water rights issue, a highly sensitive subject in the Middle East.

The Energy Ministry, which was by held by Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy, was disbanded. Its functions were transferred to the new Infrastructure Ministry.

Others ministries that relinquished some of their duties include housing, agriculture, interior, and industry and trade.

Late Sunday, the Cabinet approved a Finance Ministry economic program calling for cuts totaling some $1.6 billion in the 1997 budget. The program calls for cuts in such areas as social welfare, health, defense and education.

The cut in the defense budget of some $240 million was less than the Finance Ministry originally demanded.

Senior defense officials expressed concern that the cuts would prompt career officers, who would be most affected by the cuts, to leave.

Netanyahu described the budget-cutting measures as “a painful operation a sick person must undergo in order to get well.”

He blamed the previous government for the economy he inherited, saying that it “gave us no choice but to take these one-time measures to restore stability.”

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