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New Israeli Government Takes Office - 2003-02-28

A new Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has officially taken office. It is a hawkish, right of center coalition that some say that could spell trouble between Israel and the United States down the road.

The new government was sworn in during the early morning hours Friday, after a lengthy debate and approval from the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Prime Minister Sharon now begins a second term of office with a comfortable majority in the 120-member legislature.

It was clear from the beginning that Mr. Sharon would have preferred a more centrist coalition government to include the left-of-center Labor Party. But, throughout the past weeks of negotiations, Labor refused to join, opting instead to remain the opposition.

So, Mr. Sharon now finds himself at the head of a hard-line government that includes strong supporters of expanding Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, as well as vehement opponents of a future Palestinian state.

In his speech to the Knesset, Mr. Sharon made it clear that his government's first priority is to revive Israel's ailing economy and bring it out of recession.

The prime minister also indicated he is in no rush to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. He repeated earlier positions: That the Palestinians would have to stop all violence and incitement before talks could resume; that the current Palestinian leadership must be replaced and that a political solution must be based on a "gradual" process.

While Mr. Sharon repeated his willingness to accept a limited Palestinian state in the future, he has also promised his coalition partners that, before this could be considered, he would put it to a vote in the Cabinet. And, given the current views of many of the Cabinet members, it is doubtful that such a vote would pass.

Palestinian officials have already said the new government leaves little hope for ending over 2.5 years of violence. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the Sharon government of "abandoning peace."

Mr. Sharon's speech to the Knesset and the swearing in of his government came on the heels of a speech in Washington by President Bush, who said that "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace." The president called for a truly democratic Palestinian state that abandons terror. He also called on Israel to support a "viable" Palestinian state and work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement.

While Mr. Sharon has repeatedly stressed his close relationship with the Bush administration, some analysts here say, if Washington decides to push serious peace efforts, Mr. Sharon's coalition government might well be at odds with its close ally.

One analysis in the Ha'aretz newspaper discounts that view, saying that, at this point, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a high priority for Mr. Sharon or for Mr. Bush.

But pressure to address that issue is increasing, the latest calls coming from two staunch Bush allies, Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar. Both leaders said in Madrid Friday that it's time to restart the Middle East peace process with the goal of forming a "viable Palestinian state."