Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to keep his imperiled government afloat Sunday by bringing former premier Benjamin Netanyahu into the Cabinet, while Netanyahu set a tough condition for joining — early elections.
Israel's two leading right-wing politicians, Sharon and Netanyahu, are trying to work out an alliance while also battling each other to lead the Likud Party into the country's next general election.
The ballot must be held before next November, but could be brought forward to early next year if the Sharon resigns or if his fragile coalition collapses in the coming days or weeks. That could plunge Israel into even greater turmoil as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on and with the threat of a U.S. war with Iraq on the horizon.
In the complex rivalry between Sharon and Netanyahu, both stressed their efforts to resolve the current political crisis, and played down any suggestion they were jockeying for advantage in the next election.
"I told [Sharon] that I'll be happy to serve as foreign minister on condition that we go to early elections," Netanyahu told Israeli television. "The right thing is to immediately go to new elections," he added, predicting that Likud would double its current 19 seats in the 120-member parliament.
Sharon wants Netanyahu in the government, a development that could help stabilize the coalition. In addition, Netanyahu would presumably be subject to the discipline of Cabinet decisions, rather having the freedom to criticize the government from the outside.
Sharon "praised the decision in principle by Mr. Netanyahu to join his government," the prime minister's office said in a statement. Netanyahu's demand for early elections was "being examined," Sharon's office added.
Netanyahu could harm his image if he flatly refused to join the government at a moment of crisis. But analysts said he is reluctant to serve under Sharon as the race for party leader intensifies.
Sharon is the current Likud leader, but a party primary must be held before the next general election.
Some polls have shown Netanyahu winning a head-to-head contest. He would then be positioned to become the next prime minister, according to the polls that show Likud winning the largest number seats in the next election.
In Israel's chronically unstable political system, the winner of any election will have to work out alliances with a host of smaller parties. Such governments regularly fall, and the country has had five prime ministers in the past seven years.
Sharon's broad-based coalition government lost its majority in parliament last week when the moderate Labor Party, the largest single faction, quit over a dispute about funding to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
The coalition now has 55 seats in the 120 seat parliament, making the government vulnerable to collapse. Several no-confidence motions are expected in parliament coming days.
Sharon and his aides are looking to form an alliance with the far-right National Union-Israel Beiteinu party, which has seven seats, enough to give the government a narrow majority.
National Union leaders met Sunday with Sharon's Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar to discuss joining the government. No decision was reached, but more talks were planned.
Sharon has said he will not alter his policies in order to bring in additional parties, but the National Union says it wants to see the government move further to the right in its handling of the conflict with the Palestinians.
"We want a significant change in the policies of the government," said Yuri Stern, a National Union lawmaker participating in the negotiations.
The National Union opposes the creation of Palestinian state and wants Yasser Arafat removed as the Palestinian leader, said Benny Elon, a National Union lawmaker.
Such hard-line coalition partners could put Sharon in a bind as he responds to a U.S.-led plan that seeks to establish a Palestinian state with provisional borders by next year.
When Netanyahu was prime minister from 1996-99, Sharon served as foreign minister for latter part of that tenure. Despite their occasional alliances, the two men are better known as rivals.
When Netanyahu was premier, longtime hawk Sharon was considered to be pulling him to the right.
But the two have traded places and for most of Sharon's tenure over the past 20 months. Netanyahu has criticized him for not expelling Arafat and for accepting in principle the idea of Palestinian statehood.
In another development Sunday, Israeli officials said troops shot an armed Palestinian in an Israeli-controlled area near the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border. Further details were not immediately available.
Army officials also said troops opened fire at three Palestinians who approached the Gaza border with Israel, but said the area wouldn't be searched until daybreak for fear of booby traps.