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Netanyahu ousted as Sharon tightens grip

Jerusalem, Feb. 26 (Reuters): Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ousted hawkish foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu today in a surprise move after forging a new rightist coalition likely to toughen Israel’s line against a Palestinian uprising.

Silvan Shalom, until now finance minister, agreed to take the foreign ministry in the coalition Sharon began forming after his right-wing Likud party’s general election victory on January 28. In a move clearly engineered to unseat his main internal rival in Likud, Sharon asked Netanyahu to be finance minister. The former Premier, who challenged Sharon for the Likud leadership late last year, refused the offer at a meeting with Sharon in the Prime Minister’s office.

Shalom, who has little foreign policy experience, is widely seen as loyal to Sharon and his appointment is unlikely to bring big changes to Israel’s foreign policy, foreign diplomats said.

“I don’t think this will make much difference to foreign policy. Sharon will strengthen his grip on foreign policy with a weaker person as foreign minister,” a senior European diplomat said.

Netanyahu’s future is now unclear. Israeli media said a senior Sharon aide had telephoned Netanyahu, urging him to reconsider his rejection of the finance minstry post and leaving open the possibility that he might remain in government.

If that failed, Sharon was expected to offer the finance ministry to another loyalist, fellow Likud member Ehud Olmert, and keep on defence minister Shaul Mofaz in his post.

Likud reached a coalition deal early today with the centrist Shinui party, the ultra-nationalist National Union party and the National Religious Party (NRP), a champion of Jewish settlements on occupied land. The coalition signed an agreement giving Sharon a government with 68 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.

The inclusion of the Right-wing parties will increase pressure on Sharon to take an even tougher line against the Palestinians and could make it even harder for international mediators to end 29 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Sharon, who turned 75 today, is expected to present the coalition to parliament, the Knesset, tomorrow. The government’s main tasks are to tackle the Palestinian uprising and confront mounting economic problems. The Palestinians, seeking their own state, are wary of the proposed coalition because of the expected shift to the Right.

“It is obvious from the nature of the agreements and the nature of the parties that the Israeli government will be a government of settlement activities, of more military escalations and incursions,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. “The only thing that will be absent is the peace process.”

Sharon had tried to bring the Centre-Left Labour Party into the coalition to avoid dependence on Right-wing parties. But Labour pulled out of negotiations on Sunday, saying it could not find a common basis with Sharon.

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