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Sharon survives no-confidence votes

He rejects Netanyahu's terms for joining new government

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his government in disarray and his parliamentary majority gone, survived three no-confidence votes Monday.

The Labor Party's resignation from the government last week left Sharon with only 55 votes in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament.

He was able to withstand the no-confidence votes because his opponents -- the Meretz and Shinui parties, as well as Arab lawmakers -- were unable to cobble together the 61 votes needed for such a motion to pass.

Sharon has been trying to form a new, narrower coalition government since Labor, the largest faction in his unity government, quit Wednesday in a dispute over the 2003 Israeli budget.

Sharon told a faction of his Likud party Monday that he had rejected former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's terms for joining a new government. Netanyahu had accepted Sharon's offer to become his foreign minister on the condition that Sharon call early elections.

It is too early for new elections, Sharon told the party. While he is expected to be able to form a new coalition, Sharon also has the option of asking Israeli President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections in 90 days.

"I hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will answer my proposal and will join the government quickly," Sharon said. "We are standing before important and faithful decisions that can't stand any delay."

He also rejected calls from several right-wing parties, which have been pushing for Israel to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the West Bank, to change the government's policies.

"First, the guidelines and policy from the government won't change; second, the strategy plans taken with the United States will be respected; third, the budget will pass and stay as planned," Sharon said.

Israeli media carried accounts over the weekend that leaders of the ultra-right religious parties were hoping that Sharon would consider sending Arafat into exile now that Labor is no longer in the government.

Labor members, led by then-Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who resigned his post Wednesday, said Sharon was allocating too much money -- about $147 million -- to Jewish settlements in the disputed territories. They wanted the money spent on social causes.

Sharon, whose coalition survived for 20 months, has been an ardent supporter of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Besides Ben-Eliezer, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and five other Labor ministers resigned from the Cabinet.

On Thursday, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz accepted Sharon's offer to become Israel's new defense minister, government sources said.

Peres said Monday he thought that even if Sharon cobbles together a narrow government, there will be new elections "several months" in advance of next October when they are scheduled to be held.

Israel Radio reported Thursday that Peres refused overtures from Sharon aides to join a new government.

-- CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.

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