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Sharon takes power as threats loom

JERUSALEM -- Outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak has handed the reins of power to hardliner Ariel Sharon pledging his support for the new broad-coalition government.

Amid threats of a fresh wave of bombings by Palestinian militants, Barak congratulated Sharon on "taking his place at the summit of responsibility" following last month's landslide election victory.

"I'm sure that the people, like me, will stand by this government and do everything we can to help it," Barak said at the largely informal ceremony in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

In response Sharon said Israel was facing a period "that's not going to be easy," and expressed disappointment that Barak would not be joining the government as invited.

Excerpt from Sharon's speech presenting the new government (March 7)

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Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat reacts to Sharon's speech (March 7)

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CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports on what some call an Israeli policy of separation

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Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells CNN "bullets will not divide us"

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Daniel Ben Simon, journalist: Sharon's priority is unity among Jews

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Timeline gallery: Ariel Sharon

The nation's fifth prime minister in six years, Sharon heads a large coalition government that inherits the five-month-old Palestinian uprising, a broken-down peace process and an anxiety-ridden Israel.

Asked later if he was prepared to see Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the 73-year-old tough-talking ex-general, reiterated the violence must stop first: "I'm ready to meet and to conduct negotiations with him, but that means we have to have quiet and security."

Arab reaction divided

The country's new foreign minister, Labor's Shimon Peres, told CNN's Jerrold Kessel that the government presented the united face of Israel to "tell the Palestinians that bullets will not divide us and will not change our minds."

"I believe that this government has the maturity and the need to bring peace to the land."

The Nobel Peace laureate reiterated the position of Sharon and Barak that all previous offers to the Palestinians were now off the table and negotiation must start again.

The new government which includes Sharon's right-wing Likud, center-left Labor, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and the National Union or Yisrael Beiteinu Party, a nationalist party that favors the removal of Palestinians, was approved in a 72 to 21 vote.

With 26 ministers and 12 deputy ministers it is the largest government in Israel's history and an extra table had to be found to allow them all to meet.

Reaction across the Arab world to the new cabinet has ranged from condemnation of the new government to a distrust of Sharon, whom many Arabs blame for a 1982 massacre in Lebanon's refugee camps.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, complained Sharon's speech was "too general to analyze."

Peacemaking "requires steps, deeds on the ground, not merely lip service."

Erakat said tensions are being heightened by the "continuing Israeli occupation" of the Palestinian territories.

"He (Sharon) did not say it is time to end the Israeli occupation," said Erakat, saying that would be the quickest path to peace.

Sharon scored a crushing victory over the previous Labor prime minister Ehud Barak on February 6, taking almost 63 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory in a prime ministerial race in Israeli history.

Barak had tried since 1999 to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, based on what he called "painful compromises on both sides."

Soon after Sharon was sworn in, the White House announced that he would travel to Washington to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush on March 20.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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