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Netanyahu turns to Sharon to ease political woes

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Ex-general's role is complicated by meeting with Palestinian

In this story: June 29, 1997
Web posted at: 9:23 p.m. EDT (0123 GMT)

From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of Israelis this weekend flocked to Tel Aviv's King of Israel square. Their objective: to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But if organizers of the dump Netanyahu campaign were pleased with the turnout, the prime minister's opponents recognize they're unlikely to be the ones to bring him down.

Netanyahu's biggest problems at the moment are within his own Likud party. Earlier this week, the prime minister survived a no-confidence vote in the Knesset, but he suffered an embarrassing setback when nearly a dozen members of his coalition did not cast ballots.

vxtreme Netanyahu's troubles

A weekend poll shows Netanyahu would be easily beaten by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. According to the same poll Yitzhak Mordechai, Netanyahu's popular defense minister, would comfortably beat Barak.

Netanyahu, 47, has lurched from crisis to crisis since he took power a year ago. His cabinet is in turmoil and peacemaking has crumbled over his expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

'Sharon's support will be decisive'

Perhaps the man with the key to Netanyahu's political future is controversial ex-general Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu wants to name Sharon as finance minister, elevating him to the three-man "kitchen cabinet" which oversees Israeli peace moves.

Netanyahu

"Sharon's support will be decisive," Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishari says. "Which camp in the Likud will win Sharon's support is very important. That's why he's appearing now. He's going to be a key figure in the struggle between the two camps in the Likud. Nobody won him yet. I don't think Netanyahu won him."

The disclosure on Israel Television of a secret meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen, number two in the Palestinian hierarchy to Yasser Arafat, has complicated Sharon's planned promotion.

Right wing allies 'stunned'

Sharon's right-wing allies said they were "stunned" by the meeting. "It certainly is worrisome," Transport Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party told Israeli army radio. "My worry is, where is Sharon situated from a political standpoint?"

Other Israelis speculated that the burly Sharon aimed to soften his hard-line image before assuming his highest job in government since his resignation in 1983.

Sharon, 69, has been a recalcitrant cabinet opponent of peacemaking with the PLO, branding Arafat a "war criminal." In 1983 a state inquiry forced Sharon out as defense minister after finding him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps near Beirut by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen.

If the original intention to elevate Sharon within the Israeli government was seen as a red flag to the Arab bull, now some Palestinians at least are interpreting the secret meeting at Sharon's ranch as an invitation for that bull to roam in richer pastures.

"Once they were against each other behind the barricades in Beirut," Faisal Husseini of the Palestinian Authority said. "It is time now to sit together and to talk with each other. We cannot ignore his influence with the Israeli community."

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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