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Netanyahu agrees to become Israeli foreign minister

Former prime minister says Sharon must call early election

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed Sunday to accept an offer from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to become his foreign minister, on the condition that Sharon calls for early elections.

"I said to the prime minister that I would agree to serve as foreign minister in a goverment that would go to early elections," Netanyahu said.

"If we don't go to early elections, this government would barely survive. It would not be able to implement the economic reforms that I believe are necessary," he added.

"I hope the prime minister will accept this; he said he'd consider this. And I think if he does, then Israel will benefit and the citizens of Israel will benefit."

A statement from Sharon's office said the prime minister welcomed Netanyahu's agreement to serve in principle, and said Sharon was mulling over the condition that he hold early elections, possibly in the spring.

Netanyahu met with Sharon for two hours Sunday before announcing his decision. The two expect to meet again, possibly Monday, the statement said.

Sharon is trying to put together a new, narrower coalition government after the Labor Party, the largest faction in his national unity government, quit Wednesday in a dispute over the 2003 Israeli budget. Labor said Sharon was allocating too much money to Jewish settlements in the disputed territories.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and five other Labor members left the Cabinet when Labor resigned from the government. 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.

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

With Labor out of his coalition, Sharon now has 56 votes in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Sharon faces a possible no-confidence vote in the Knesset on Monday.

Netanyahu a longtime public figure

Netanyahu served as a soldier and officer in an elite commando unit in the Israel Defense Forces from 1967 to 1972, according to the Israeli government Web site.

In 1982, Netanyahu was appointed deputy chief of mission at the Israeli mission to the United States. He served as Israel's United Nations representative from 1984 to 1988, deputy foreign minister from 1988 to 1991 and deputy prime minister from 1991 to 1992.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Netanyahu was elected leader of the right-wing Likud party in 1993 and elected prime minister in May 1996. Following his defeat by Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections, he resigned from the chairmanship of the Likud party and from the Knesset.

In 1999 Netanyahu and his wife were investigated for alleged fraud. Police suspected they had conspired with a government contractor in a kickback scheme, illegally keeping gifts, and obstructing justice.

A 22-page report released in September 2000 by Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said that "difficulties with the evidence" made it unlikely that a conviction could be obtained against the couple.

The Netanyahus were not prosecuted, although Rubinstein said their relationship with a contractor who allegedly carried out more than $100,000 worth of free services for them was improper.

Reports: Sharon seeking right-leaning government

Sharon has scheduled talks with the nationalistic National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction Sunday in a bid to establish a narrow, right-leaning government, Israel Radio reported Friday.

The National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction has seven members, enough to give Sharon a majority. But its leader, Avigdor Liberman, has said he opposes joining a new coalition government.

In Ramallah, West Bank, on Thursday, Palestinian Authority officials said a new Sharon coalition relying on right-wing religious parties would spell more problems for the Palestinians.

"This (any newly formed coalition) is the Cabinet of the extreme right which will try to escalate the war more against the Palestinian people and will endanger the condition in the region," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister. "And I believe that the Israeli people will commit a historic mistake if they give a chance to such a Cabinet to rule them and to speak in their name. This is the Cabinet of war."

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

Sharon's coalition, which survived for 20 months, fell apart in a dispute between Sharon and Labor over about $147 million in funding for Jewish settlements.

Sharon has been an ardent supporter of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ben-Eliezer demanded that money be diverted to social programs. Sharon condemned the demand as political and refused, but said he offered to set up a committee to consider Labor's demands. Ben-Eliezer rejected the offer.

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