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Sharon Pulls Some Surprises with Choice of Cabinet Ministers

February 27, 2003
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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had some surprises up his sleeve as he dispensed Cabinet posts among members of his Likud Party this week.

Likud members, already unhappy over what they viewed as Sharon’s decision to give away choice ministry portfolios to other coalition partners, were further surprised by the Cabinet reshuffle that emerged.

In the most prominent move, Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.

Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who turned it down.

But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Shalom’s appointment as foreign minister surprised some observers, given his relative inexperience in diplomacy.

Shalom, 45, was born in Tunisia and immigrated to Israel in 1959.

A Knesset member since 1992, he previously served as science minister and deputy defense minister in the government of then-Prime Minister Netanyahu.

A father of five, he has degrees in law and economics.

The possible portfolio switch between Netanyahu and Shalom came against the backdrop of tension between Sharon and Shalom this week, over reports that the prime minister preferred to give the finance portfolio to his close associate and the former Jerusalem mayor, Ehud Olmert.

Instead, Olmert is expected to become minister of industry and trade.

In another appointment, Tzachi Hanegbi won a speculated toss-up among Cabinet ministers Dan Naveh and Tzipi Livni for public security minister.

Education Minister Limor Livnat was to remain in her position, as was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was promised the post by Sharon before the Jan. 28 elections.

As Sharon met with the Likud ministers throughout the day Wednesday, representatives from the Likud, Shinui, National Religious Party and National Union presented their signed draft coalition agreements to the Knesset secretary.

Sharon was expected to present the ministers in his new government to the Knesset on Thursday, except for those from the NRP.

The NRP Central Committee is to convene Sunday for a vote to determine which of its legislators will head the welfare and housing ministries.

Sharon’s four-party coalition will command a 68-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset.

The hard-line makeup of the new government has raised questions over prospects for any future progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Both the NRP and National Union included their objections to a Palestinian state in their coalition agreements.

But Olmert said Wednesday that he hoped additional parties would later join the government.

For his part, Shinui Knesset member Avraham Poraz said the unifying element of the parties comprising the new coalition is their sense of “economic responsibility.”

Meanwhile, in the opposition, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna denied a media report that he was considering not running for a second term in the face of stiff opposition from party colleagues.

Labor’s devastating defeat in the Jan. 28 general election and Mitzna’s recent decision to halt all coalition contacts with the Likud prompted open and bitter criticism in the party this week.

Other Cabinet appointments include Yisrael Katz of Likud, agriculture minister; Shinui members Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, justice minister; Avraham Poraz, interior minister; Yosef Paritsky, infrastuctures minister; Yehudit Naot, environmental affairs minister; and Mordechai Zandberg, science and technology minister; National Union members Avigdor Lieberman, transport minister, and Benny Elon, tourism minister; and ministers without portfolio, Natan Sharansky, Dan Meridor and Gideon Ezra.

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