Bowing to pressure, Netanyahu bypasses Sharon for finance post

JERUSALEM, July 7 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon has lost — at least for now. In a move aimed at ending a drawn-out coalition crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bypassed the veteran Likud hawk to name Ya’acov Ne’eman as the new finance minister. It appears that the move has saved Netanyahu’s government from imminent collapse, but the premier is still faced with the daunting task of restoring confidence in his leadership. Ever since the finance position was vacated last month by Netanyahu rival Dan Meridor — in a dispute over foreign currency reforms — Sharon, the national infrastructure minister, had been seen as the leading contender for the job. But Foreign Minister David Levy, already irate over his belief that the prime minister was excluding him from political decision-making, balked at the prospects of Sharon taking over the influential portfolio and becoming a member of the “kitchen cabinet,” which sets peace policy. Levy threatened to quit if his leading role in the peacemaking efforts was not ensured by the prime minister, and demanded that the kitchen cabinet be disbanded on the premise that it sowed discord among the ministers who were not members. If Levy had walked, taking his colleagues with him, Netanyahu would have been left with a razor-slim majority in the Knesset. After a series of meetings with Levy, Netanyahu bowed to the pressure and agreed to abolish the inner forum. However, in a gesture to Sharon, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu would still consult “from time to time” on important matters with senior ministers — Levy, Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Ne’eman served as justice minister for two months until last summer, when he stepped down amid a criminal investigation into allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice. Ne’eman was acquitted by a court in May. However, his reinstatement to his old job was blocked by his replacement as justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, who refused to step aside. Netanyahu held consultations Monday to finalize the Cabinet shuffle. He still had to pick a minister for the science portfolio, vacated by Ze’ev “Benny” Begin in January in protest over the Israeli troop withdrawal from most of the West Bank town of Hebron. Netanyahu met with the two Likud Knesset members vying for the post, Michael Eitan and Silvan Shalom, to try to find a workable solution. As soon as he finalized the appointments, Netanyahu was expected to present them to the Knesset for approval.

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