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Knesset Approves Mammoth Sharon Government
After quickly pulling together a broad coalition of national unity, Israeli war hero and long-time politician Ariel Sharon was sworn in as Israel's 11th prime minister in a special Knesset session late Wednesday evening, becoming the leader of the largest cabinet in the nation's history.
As we go to press just after 11:00 pm, one thousand VIPs, including President Moshe Katsav, are witnessing Sharon and the members of his coalition cabinet take their oaths of office in a special session of parliament.
Just moments ago, the Knesset approved by a vote of 72 to 21 the national unity government presented by Sharon, who spoke before a packed Knesset in Jerusalem to present the ministers in his government. Sharon praised outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, saying that while the two differed in diplomacy, they shared a common desire for a better future for the country. Sharon also praised the Labor party for joining his government, singling out Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, for showing "maturity and national responsibility."
Sharon said in his speech that his wide national unity government had been formed in order to last until the next scheduled election in November 2003. "Over the last few years, we have been involved with internal and superfluous disputes," said Sharon. "This is the moment to change direction."
Sharon said that his broad-based coalition is ready for "painful compromises" toward peace with the Palestinians, but not "under the pressure of violence and terror." Sharon added, "If the Palestinians choose the path of peace ... they will find me and my government a sincere and true partner... We will demand the Palestinians abandon the way of violence, terrorism and incitement."
Speaking to ARMY RADIO this morning about tonight's Knesset session, the native-born Sharon, 73, said calmly, "After so many years in politics, I am not all that excited about this. I do feel the weight of responsibility, particularly in the period we are presently facing, and I am certain that along with my partners in the government, we will know how to provide the best answers."
Sharon's national-unity coalition will have 26 ministers and 15 deputy ministers from eight parties, after United Torah Judaism signed a last-minute agreement. The UTJ deal was made contingent on the Knesset first extending for two years the current draft deferrals for yeshiva students. The measure passed 59 to 38 earlier this evening, maintaining the status quo for now, which allows the defense minister to grant an unlimited number of deferments.
In a busy day prior to approving the new Sharon government, the Knesset also faced two other major decisions, forcing Sharon to wait until late to take the oath of office. The Knesset abolished the law for direct election of the prime minister by a comfortable 72 to 37 margin. Israel will now revert in the next election to its original method of single-ballot voting whereby the prime minister is chosen from the political party receiving the greatest number of votes in a general election. The measure was staunchly opposed by several smaller parties who have benefited from the two-ballot system that enabled voters to cast one ballot for prime minister and a second one for a party championing their favorite cause or ideology.
Lawmakers also approved on first reading the 2001 state budget, passing the NIS 240 billion proposal by a 54-32 margin. The annual budget must pass two final readings before March 31 or new general elections are automatically triggered.
The Sharon government will be anchored by his Likud party (19 MKs), along with Labor/One Israel (23) and Shas (17), plus Yisrael Beiteinu-National Union (7), Yisrael B'Aliyah (4), One Nation (2) and New Way - the brand new, one-member faction formed by ex-Center party MK Dalia Rabin Pelesof, who is to become deputy defense minister. Along with support from outside factions, the line-up assures the coalition a strong majority in the 120-member assembly.
Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliyah and Rehavam Ze'evi's National Union entered the coalition Monday night, while the National Religious Party (5 MKs), David Levy's Gesher (3), and the right-leaning remnants of the defunct Center Party (5) - three factions that were considered suitable partners for Sharon - were left out for now. Their leaders expressed disappointment, but were still expected to instruct their factions to vote in favor of the government. Only the ultra-dovish Meretz (10), four small Israeli Arab parties (10), the secular Shinui faction (6) and the tiny dovish Russian immigrant party Democratic Choice (2) were opposing Sharon. Several members of Labor, however, have also been strongly against joining a Sharon unity government.
The Cabinet will consist of:
Prime Minister and Absorption Minister: Ariel Sharon (Likud)
Foreign Minister: Shimon Peres (Labor)
Defense Minister: Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor)
Transportation Minister: Ephraim Sneh (Labor)
Agriculture Minister: Shalom Simhon (Labor)
Trade and Industry Minister: Dalia Itzik (Labor)
Science, Culture and Sport Minister: Matan Vilnai (Labor)
Minister without Portfolio: Salah Tarif (Labor)
Minister without Portfolio: Ra'anan Cohen(Labor)
Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister: Silvan Shalom (Likud)
Justice Minister: Meir Sheetrit (Likud)
Education Minister: Limor Livnat (Likud)
Public Security Minister: Uzi Landau (Likud)
Communication Minister: Reuven Rivlin (Likud)
Environment Minister: Tzahi Hanegbi (Likud)
Minister without Portfolio; Govt.-Knesset Liaison: Danny Naveh (Likud)
Minister without Portfolio: Tzipi Livni (Likud)
Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister: Eli Yishai (Shas)
Labor and Social Affairs Minister: Shlomo Benizri (Shas)
Health Minister: Nissim Dahan (Shas)
Jerusalem Affairs Minister: Eli Suissa (Shas)
Religious Affairs Minister: Asher Ohana (Shas)
National Infrastructure Minister: Avigdor Lieberman (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu) Tourism Minister: Rehavam Ze'evi (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu)
Housing and Construction Minister and Deputy Prime Minister: Natan Sharansky (Yisrael B'Aliyah)
Minister without Portfolio: Shmuel Avital (Am Ehad)
Sharon's cabinet met together for the first time this afternoon. "It will not be simple to work in this government," Sharon said at this initial meeting. "I want to say to you here that we are speaking of a cooperative government. And when there is cooperation, naturally, not everyone can actualize everything that he wants."
"In my eyes, the success of the government will be the success of the nation," said Foreign Minister-elect Peres. "I very much hope that in a good spirit, we will be able to answer the question and to advance the State of Israel."
Many Likud MKs left the party's Tel Aviv headquarters last night disappointed at not being offered a lucrative cabinet seat. Among them were long-time Sharon ally Yehoshua Matza, Druze leader Ayoub Kara, and Michael Eitan.
Another unexpected development came when the Likud finalized a coalition agreement with One Nation, which is closely tied to the Histadrut Labor Federation. One Nation members say their demand that the minimum monthly wage be raised to $1000 was met.
Yisrael B'Aliyah will receive the Construction and Housing portfolio, a deputy premiership, and chairmanship of the Ministerial Committee on Diaspora, Immigration, and Absorption. Yuli Edelstein will run the Immigration Absorption Ministry as a deputy minister to Sharon, essentially giving him full reign over the portfolio. Sharansky will also be a member of an inner "security" cabinet.
Likud negotiators had offered the NRP essentially what the party had before bolting the government of PM Ehud Barak. However, the NRP said it was insufficient in light of their hard work to get Sharon elected. The party has been a strong proponent of national unity and champion of Jewish settlement, and a natural ally of the Likud since 1977. "Now they want to give us two ceremonial deputy ministers who will come to work every day to drink tea. We do not want this. The government is already bloated with ministers and deputy ministers," NRP chairman Yitzhak Levy complained yesterday.
In coalition-related legal developments, the Knesset House Committee voted to remove MK Avigdor Lieberman's parliamentary immunity on Tuesday, rendering him vulnerable to criminal charges for allegedly attacking and threatening a minor. Lieberman, head of the hawkish immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, supported the vote. A draft indictment alleges that in December 1999, Lieberman attacked several children, aged 12-13, whom he suspected had beaten his son. Lieberman has denied these charges, stating that he intends to prove his innocence in court. Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein said that the indictment itself does not disqualify Lieberman from serving as a minister in the new government.
Finally, Rubinstein rescinded his indictment of former Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi (Likud) on Tuesday. Hanegbi was suspected of bribery and conflict-of-interest in connection with the Bon Voyage association he headed. The AG stated today that although there is room for suspicion of wrongdoing, he did not think that criminal activity could be proven in court.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.