Hawk Ariel Sharon starts his first day in office Thursday as Israel's 11th prime minister facing the unknown, extending a hand of peace to Arab neighbors but insisting he will not negotiate with the Palestinians unless the Intifada halts. Meanwhile, US President George Bush has invited the premier to visit Washington, while France said it would judge the new government upon its actions.
A month after his sweeping election victory, Sharon took office Wednesday night, winning the support of a wide majority of the Knesset for his national-unity government.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Sharon's government is supported by eight Knesset factions totaling 78 MKs, and he declared he would work to bring more partners into the government. The cabinet has 26 ministers, who were all sworn in last night except for Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik, who is in mourning for her father. By special request, Sharon took his oath of office on a Bible.
The government was confirmed by a 72-21 vote, with the support of the Likud, One Israel, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu-National Union, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Ba'aliya, Am Ehad, and The New Way. The National Religious Party, which is not in the coalition, voted in favor, while the Gesher and Center factions did not vote, said the paper.
Immediately after the ceremony, the White House announced that Sharon would meet on March 20 in Washington with President George W. Bush, who called the Israeli leader to congratulate him, said AFP and the Post.
"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," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
‘SECURITY FOR ISRAELIS, PAINFUL COMPROMISES, HAPPY EID AL ADHA’
Haaretz described Sharon’s speech as “conciliatory” as he called for "painful compromises for peace from both sides," and for national unity to overcome "the difficult security situation, challenges in the international arena, divisions in the nation, and blind hatred."
"The long conflict between us has caused great suffering to both peoples," Sharon said directly to the Palestinians. "The future can be and should be different. Fate has decreed that we, two nations, live side by side in this tiny little land. We cannot change this reality, but I believe that we can, if there is will on both sides, get off the road of bitter bloodshed. We reach out our hand to peace," he said and added "our nation is peace loving."
On Jerusalem, in the only departure from his prepared text, he left out the sentence that said "a united Jerusalem will remain always in Israeli sovereignty," even while emphasizing he continued the tradition of all Israeli premiers to declare their commitment to the city.
Sharon said despite "significant concessions that have been made on the road to peace, we have still not found the readiness for compromise and genuine peace on the part of our neighbors ... The fundamental issue at the heart of the peace process is the principle of resolving conflict in peaceful ways, without the use of violence. We will stick to this principle, on principle. We will demand the Palestinians abandon the way of violence, terror and incitement, and that the Palestinian Authority stick to its commitments to fight terrorism aimed at Israel, its citizens and its soldiers."
Then he turned conciliatory, again, said Haaretz, "I know of the difficulties and suffering of the Palestinians. I believe we can move forward, gradually, with mutual respect and confidence building between the sides," he said. He promised to look at "a variety of ideas" for advancing the peace talks and reducing the suffering of the Palestinians.
He pledged his government would "turn a new page in relations with the citizens of Israel who are not Jewish," he was heckled from the back benches by MK Taleb Al Sana of the United Arab List, who said "there's no shame in mentioning the Arab citizens."
Sharon looked up from the page he was reading and smiled. "It's too bad you don't have a little patience. If you had waited until the next sentence in my speech, you would have heard me wish the Arabs of Israel a happy Eid al-Adha." The off-the-cuff remark won a stormy round of applause, something rare in the Knesset.
FRANCE: WE WILL JUDGE NEW GOVERNMENT BY ITS ACTS
Meanwhile, France said that Sharon's new government will be judged on its actions and its capacity to boost the peace process, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said as the hawkish former general was sworn in as prime minister.
"We will wait and see what are its intentions, particularly on the point that is most important for us, namely relations with the Palestinians," the minister told Radio France Internationale, quoted by AFP.
"Going on from there, we'll see if the government has proposals to make, if it has a political vision of the relations with the Palestinians, if it is up to getting the process under way again," Vedrine said.
"We note the fact that it's a government of unity with a lot of parties, but the important thing is its programme," he said.
"It is actions and precise commitments that count; the problems are very acute given the enormous tension in the region, which is dangerous, very dangerous," the foreign minister said.
DIRECT ELECTION LAW REPEALED
On the same day, the Knesset wiped the direct election of prime ministers from the law books with a 72-37 majority and three abstentions. The law was widely blamed for the instability of the last two Israeli governments and the rise of sectarian parties focused on narrow interests, according to Haaretz.
The passage of the bill was a key step to fulfilling the basic coalition agreement between Likud and Labor, just as the passage of the Tal bill was a key element of the coalition agreement between Likud and Shas.
The bill to replace the law that obliged voters in the last two elections to cast one ballot for prime minister and another for a party, was shepherded through the last two Knessets by a bipartisan effort led by Likud MK Uzi Landau and backed by former justice minister Yossi Beilin.
The vote won support from Labor, Likud, Meretz, Center, Hadash, Gesher, United Torah Judaism, and Balad, with some other support coming from the United Arab List, the National Union bloc, and the National Religious Party's Yigal Bibi.
Opposing the bill were Shas, Shinui, Yisrael b'Aliya, National Union, and the Democratic Choice, with other nays coming from the United Arab List, Meretz's Amnon Rubinstein, the NRP's Shaul Yahalom, Center's Ronni Milo, and Labor's Haim Ramon – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)