Ariel Sharon takes office


JERUSALEM, March 7 (JTA) – After a lifetime of national service marked by both heroism and excess, Israel’s new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, promised the Palestinians that “our hand is extended in peace” as he presented his government to the Knesset.

Addressing a special Knesset session Wednesday before the swearing-in of his government, Sharon said he is prepared to make painful concessions for peace, but the Palestinian side had failed to demonstrate its own willingness to do the same.

“I turn here to the Palestinians: It has been decreed upon us to live next to each other on the same small piece of land. Our hand is extended in peace,” said Sharon, 73, a former general and veteran of all of Israel’s wars.

“We know peace requires painful concessions by both sides,” he continued. “Unfortunately, despite significant concessions for peace made in recent years by all Israeli governments, we have not yet discovered a willingness for reconciliation and a true peace by our neighbors.”

His speech was not warmly received by the Palestinians.

“The new Israeli government must choose between continuing in the policy of talks or continuing its recent policy of blockades and siege and escalation,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The Hamas movement threatened to greet Sharon with a wave of terror attacks.

President Bush congratulated Sharon and announced that the two would meet in Washington on March 20.

“The president looks forward to discussing bilateral and regional issues with Prime Minister Sharon, including ways to bring an end to the violence and to advance peace and stability in the region,” Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said in a statement.

Sharon reiterated that Israel would not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority under threat of terror or violence.

“We demand that the Palestinians abandon the path of violence, terror and incitement,” Sharon said. He was interrupted several times by heckling from Arab legislators.

Sharon also said Israel must pursue peace agreements with Syria and its vassal state, Lebanon, but did not provide details.

The Knesset approved the new government later Wednesday night.

Earlier in the day, the Knesset passed several important pieces of legislation, including the repeal of direct elections for prime minister and the extension by two years of draft deferrals for yeshiva students.

The Likud’s Sharon was elected in a landslide victory over Labor incumbent Ehud Barak on Feb. 6 against a background of Palestinian violence and with a vague promise to restore Israeli security.

It took another month for Sharon to assemble a broad unity coalition to confront Israel’s pressing security challenge. With 26 ministers, his Cabinet is the largest in Israeli history, and his Knesset coalition currently numbers at least 73 in the 120-member house.

The coalition has a wide ideological span, including the three largest parties in the Knesset – Likud, Labor and Shas – as well as the smaller Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, National Union-Israel Our Home, One Nation, United Torah Judaism and the New Way, formerly the Center Party.

Sharon said his own views about Jewish settlement are known – in past governments he was the patron of the settlement movement, and the placement of settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip reflects Sharon’s strategic vision – but his government’s guidelines preclude building new settlements.

In light of the ongoing violence, the government will focus first not on diplomatic initiatives, but on restoring a sense of security to Israeli citizens and countering Palestinian violence.

While touting his military experience to back his assurances on security, Sharon sought during the election to present himself as a moderate. A critic of the Oslo peace process, Sharon says he prefers to pursue interim agreements with the Palestinians rather than a final peace accord.

Peace talks under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak foundered when Israel and the Palestinians were unable to resolve fundamental disputes over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Barak demanded that the Palestinians declare an “end to the conflict” with Israel in exchange for deep Israeli concessions.

In his farewell remarks, Barak cited Sharon’s pivotal role in Israel’s military campaigns and said he hopes the knowledge Sharon gleaned from those experiences would guide him.

Sharon has said that his government will honor previously signed agreements with the Palestinians, provided the Palestinians also meet their obligations. But Barak declared Wednesday that Sharon’s government is not bound by proposals merely discussed, but not agreed on, in the latest round of peace talks.

“The outgoing government leaves you with a table clean of commitments, so you can try to pursue security and peace according to your way,” Barak said. “I made clear to U.S. President Bush, Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat and world leaders that the ideas raised at Camp David, Washington and Taba are null and void” and “do not obligate or restrain in any way your government.”

At the same time, he warned, Sharon must have “the courage to admit that the ongoing situation is a recipe for everlasting friction.”

Barak, who is resigning from politics, also sought to avoid any blame for his inability to close a peace deal or the outbreak of violence last fall. He said that neither his government’s peace policies nor Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September caused the Palestinian uprising.

“It would have broken out anyway, unless Israel capitulated to all of the Palestinians’ unacceptable demands,” he said. Yet Barak offered a final defense for his policies, which critics charged offered too many dangerous concessions.

“I am convinced the way we led was the right one, and the future will prove this,” he said.

With Labor part of Sharon’s government, Yossi Sarid of the liberal Meretz Party became head of the opposition. Sarid was scheduled to offer the opposition response to Sharon’s inauguration speech later Wednesday.

As a result of the repeal of direct elections, Israel will revert to its old system in which a voter casts only one ballot for a political party beginning with the next general elections, currently scheduled for 2003.

The head of the winning party assembles a coalition and becomes prime minister.

The direct election law had been in place since the 1996 elections, when the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Labor’s Shimon Peres. Critics blamed the system for strengthening small, special-interest parties and creating political deadlock in the Cabinet and Knesset, leading to two of the shortest and most unstable governments in Israel’s history.

Likud and Labor collaborated to repeal the direct election law. Despite opposition from smaller parties, the bill was overwhelmingly approved.

The Knesset passed the measure extending by two years the army deferrals granted to tens of thousands of yeshiva students after the fervently Orthodox Shas Party had threatened to withdraw its support for Sharon’s coalition if the measure did not pass.

The house also voted in favor of next year’s budget on a preliminary vote. The budget still must pass two more readings by the end of March, or new elections will be held.

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