JERUSALEM – Israel's former army chief of staff accepted the job of defense minister Saturday, after the post became vacant with the resignation last week of Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer from the coalition government.
Shaul Mofaz's appointment by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to be put before Israel's parliament for confirmation on Monday, Sharon's office said in a statement.
Mofaz has a reputation as a hard-liner and oversaw the army's crackdown against the Palestinian uprising for most of the past two years. He also has advocated exiling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In the West Bank on Saturday, Israeli soldiers thwarted an attempted suicide bombing when they stopped two Palestinians carrying an explosive belt in a car at a checkpoint in the West Bank, the army said.
The men were stopped at Tappuah junction, south of the city of Nablus and later taken in for questioning. The belt was detonated, an army statement said.
Ben-Eliezer and five other Labor ministers quit the government on Wednesday amid a squabble over settlements funding in the West Bank and Gaza. The move left Sharon's coalition with only 55 seats in the 120-seat parliament. He is widely expected to turn to ultra-right and religious parties to muster the majority he needs.
Sharon held talks on Friday night with former Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, offering him the foreign affairs portfolio formerly held by Labor's Shimon Peres. No decision was reached and the two planned to resume talks on Sunday, an official said.
A senior official in Sharon's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that despite the cabinet shake-up, the government's policies would remain unchanged, and Israel would honor all its pledges to the United States. He did not elaborate, but one of Sharon's commitments to President Bush is to not physically harm Arafat.
Speaking in an interview broadcast Saturday on BBC television, Peres said he thought the Sharon government's days were now numbered.
"He can limp on, (but) not for a very long period of time, because when you have a small coalition -- which means a small grouping with many parties -- you are in trouble. Every small party becomes a pressure group," Peres said. The interview took place in Mallorca, Spain, where Peres was attending an annual Israeli-Palestinian political conference.
The daughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said a hardline government could revitalize liberal opposition.
"An extreme right government could put wind back into the sails of the peace movement," Dalia Rabin-Pelossof told Israeli television at a Tel Aviv rally marking seven years since the Nov. 4, 1995 assassination of her father.
About 100,000 people turned up for the event, held in the same square where Rabin was gunned down by an extremist Israeli who opposed his policy of compromise with the Palestinians, the television report said.
The crowd watched videotaped greetings from former President Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah, who said that if Rabin were alive today he would be shocked and angered by the Mideast violence but not discouraged from trying to end it.
"The vast majority of people on both sides want peace," Abdullah said. "It's up to us to listen to the voices of peace, or bow to the obstructionists, the extremists, the opportunists."
One candidate for inclusion in the cabinet is the far-right National Union-Israel Beiteinu party, which has seven seats, enough to restore the government's majority.
The party was originally part of Sharon's coalition when it was formed last year, but later left amid policy disputes.
National Union legislators have said they want Sharon to distance himself from some of the policies they believe were put in place to appease the Labor Party.
The National Union opposes negotiations with the Palestinians and favors annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands the Palestinians want for a future state. Some party members support expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Saturday that a new Israeli government would make little real difference.
"The former coalition government did not have any limits. It attacked, killed, destroyed. So what would a right wing government do, more? At least this time things will be clear," Moussa told reporters upon his arrival in Jordan for an Arab summit.