JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government survived three no-confidence votes Monday as the Israeli parliament approved the appointment of Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief, as the country's new defense minister.
The appointment had drawn criticism across party lines because Mofaz left the job of army chief just four months earlier. The military is supposed to be insulated from politics, and Mofaz' quick transition made many legislators uncomfortable.
"This is an unacceptable appointment and we don't need to approve it," said Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz party.
Sharon continued to court a far-right party that holds the key to his government's survival, as he weighed ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu's offer to serve under him in exchange for early elections.
The Israeli media said Sharon would reject the condition Monday.
Sharon has the support of only 55 of 120 legislators after the moderate Labor Party bolted his coalition last week in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
But he may have a temporary safety net from a far-right grouping whose seven lawmakers seem ready to prop up the government long enough to pass the 2003 budget in coming weeks. But after that, they may favor forcing early elections.
Negotiators from the group, the National Union-Israel Beiteinu, presented Sharon with tough terms for joining his coalition: that he formally cancel Israel's commitment to interim peace accords with the PLO that were reached in the 1990s and declare the Palestinian Authority that was established by those agreements a terrorist entity.
"This is a good opportunity to change the government's policies," said Avigdor Lieberman, a lawmaker from the party. "If [Sharon] won't change the basic policies and he won't change anything ... why should we join the government?"
Sharon has said elections should not be held before their regularly scheduled date in October 2003.
But on Sunday, Netanyahu made early elections a condition for his accepting Sharon's offer to join the government as foreign minister. Netanyahu argued that stable government is impossible given the current parliamentary makeup, and that the governing Likud party will emerge from balloting significantly strengthened.
Analysts and political observers generally agreed Netanyahu's move was part of a broader effort to challenge Sharon for Likud's leadership in a primary ahead of any general election, but were divided on whether Sharon would accept the terms.
Sharon, meanwhile, was seeking parliament approval Monday for Mofaz, a reputed hawk who was military chief until June. He angered Palestinians with his tough policies and he has voiced support for exiling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Netanyahu also backs the expulsion of Arafat — whom he accuses of terrorism — but his spokeswoman Rena Riger said this was not a condition for joining Sharon's government.
Although Sharon has sought to marginalize Arafat, he has refrained from expelling the Palestinian leader, heeding warnings from advisers that the move would anger the United States and inflame passions in the region.
Cabinet Minister Tzahi Hanegbi predicted that despite their differences, Netanyahu would in the end join Sharon's Cabinet.
"This partnership naturally doesn't really appeal to either of them ... but in the end both of them will find themselves in the government," Hanegbi said.
Meanwhile, violence continued in the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers killed five Palestinians in separate shootings over the past 24 hours, the Israeli army and Palestinian officials said Monday. No weapons were found on any of the five, according to the two sides.
Three of the five men were shot in central Gaza late Sunday when they approached a heavily guarded border fence with Israel, an area that has seen a number of Palestinian infiltration attempts, the army said.
Also Sunday, near the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, troops shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian who attempted to climb a fence bordering an Israeli-controlled area. Palestinians said the unarmed man was mentally handicapped and wandered into the area by mistake.
In Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, a 36-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed by troops who opened fire from the nearby Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, a Palestinian hospital said. Palestinians said the man was unarmed. The army said it was not aware of the incident.
The army shelled the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Younis, wounding five people, including a 5-year-old girl, after Palestinians fired mortars at a nearby Jewish settlement.
The prominent human rights organization Amnesty International said in a report Monday that Israel committed war crimes during a West Bank offensive last spring, specifically citing fighting in the Jenin refugee camp — where 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed — and in Nablus.
Israel launched the six-week operation after a wave of deadly suicide bombings — and for much of the period since it has military occupied most of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank in what has been a partly successful effort to prevent further terror attacks.