A fourth party joins Sharon’s new coalition


JERUSALEM, Feb. 25 (JTA) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is building a coalition that apparently will not include Labor or any fervently Orthodox parties. Sharon was expected to present his new government for Knesset approval in the coming days, after he signed up three parties this week to join his Likud Party in the new government.

On Tuesday, the far-right National Union Party agreed to join the government. Party officials took the step after reaching agreement with Likud that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought before the Cabinet for debate “if and when” the question becomes relevant, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

A day earlier, the secular-rights Shinui Party signed a coalition agreement with Likud.

That followed the signing of a coalition agreement Sunday between Likud and the pro-settler National Religious Party.

The three parties’ decision to join Likud in a coalition government provides Sharon with 68 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

According to its coalition agreement, National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman is slated to receive the Transportation Ministry portfolio. The party is expected to take control of a second ministry, either Absorption or Tourism, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Under its coalition deal, Shinui will receive five Cabinet ministries, including Justice and Interior Affairs.

And as a result of Sunday’s agreement, the NRP will be given the Housing Ministry, which among other things oversees settlement construction.

The new government apparently will not include Labor.

On Sunday, Labor leader Amram Mitzna accused Sharon of working behind Labor’s back to reach an agreement with the NRP and Shinui.

“I was ready for a historic move, but Sharon was not prepared to pay the price,” Mitzna told the Jerusalem Post.

Referring to the NRP’s advocacy of settlement building and opposition to a Palestinian state, Mitzna said Labor could not enter a government whose policy guidelines would not enable progress toward peace with the Palestinians.

Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid expressed regret over Mitzna’s decision.

Lapid, who had lobbied Mitzna to join a unity government that would exclude all religious parties, described the NRP as a “moderate religious party.”

The coalition agreements reached this week followed a series of unproductive talks between Sharon and Mitzna about Labor’s rejoining a Likud-led unity government.

Sharon had hoped to bring Labor into the government to strike a centrist balance, especially because Israel is likely to come under U.S. pressure to advance on the Palestinian track after an expected U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Labor’s withdrawal from the previous government — which triggered Israel’s Jan. 28 elections — was propelled by its opposition to settlement spending in the budget, as well as power struggles within the party.

Labor lost six Knesset seats in the elections, giving it just 19 seats in the new Knesset. Many political observers attributed Labor’s poor showing to its tacit support for Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians while the party, under the leadership of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was part of the former unity government.

Both before and since the elections, Mitzna has sought to shore up Labor’s traditional base of support by stating he would not rejoin a Sharon-led government.

Yet Mitzna agreed to engage in talks about rejoining the government because of heavy pressure from within Labor.

He said he wanted to clarify whether there was any substance to indications from the Prime Minister’s Office that it was willing to make compromises for peace with the Palestinians.

Sharon has publicly stated his willingness to make “painful concessions for peace” and voiced backing for a Palestinian state, but Labor officials said Sunday that the prime minister had refused to put down in writing a commitment to a “continuation of the peace process, establishment of a Palestinian state and evacuation of settlements within the framework of a permanent peace deal.”

Sharon reportedly told Mitzna during a phone conversation Sunday that Labor and Likud were in a position where they could “make history together” and that “it would be a shame to miss” the opportunity.

This week’s coalition agreements apparently provoked feelings of resentment on the part of one fervently Orthodox leader.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party on Monday called Sharon “the prime minister of garbage cans.”

Yosef spoke out after Sharon left Shas out of the government he is forming. Yosef comment was directed not just at Sharon but at Shinui, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Officials from Shas and the United Torah Judaism bloc criticized the NRP for agreeing to join a government with Shinui, leaving Shas and UTJ outside the government.

The two Orthodox parties accused the NRP of harming the Jewish character of the state in return for a role in the government.

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