Netanyahu says he’ll take job if Sharon calls elections

J By Laura King

jERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Israel’s best-known and most popular politicians, said Sunday that he was willing to accept the job of foreign minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government but imposed a stringent condition: early elections.

In complex political negotiations being conducted in an unusually public forum, Netanyahu told longtime rival Sharon – and the entire country – that the prime minister should face the voters early next year and seek to increase the number of parliament seats he controls, rather than woo small parties to try to keep a narrow governing coalition together.

Sharon’s 20-month partnership with the center-left Labor Party collapsed last week, leaving him scrambling to find new parliamentary allies and fill key posts at a time when Israel is locked in combat with the Palestinians and a potential U.S. war with Iraq is on the horizon.

Sharon has turned to right-wing figures as the mainstays of his new Cabinet, picking retired army chief Shaul Mofaz as defense minister and offering the Foreign Ministry to Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and had been expected to challenge Sharon for leadership of their conservative Likud Party in advance of the next elections.

Elections do not have to be held until a year from now, but Netanyahu bluntly advised Sharon against trying to preside for that long over an unstable coalition that would be beset by the competing demands of small factions.

“I told the prime minister I would be glad to serve in a government going to early elections, because if we don’t, the government … will be subject to endless blackmailing,” he said in an interview on Israel’s Channel One television.

Sharon neither accepted nor rejected Netanyahu’s demand, saying in a statement that it was “being examined.” The two men had met twice in three days and were expected to continue their talks Monday.

Early elections were not Sharon’s first choice when his alliance with Labor collapsed.

The prime minister indicated last week that he wanted to try to cobble together a new coalition and continue, at least for the time being, to govern with it. His aides have been holding talks with ultranationalist and religious parties to try to recruit the six seats he needs to regain a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Netanyahu said he believed that the Likud Party would more than double its parliamentary seats if early elections were held. Since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, more than two years ago, polls have consistently pointed to a high degree of support among Israelis for Likud’s hard line toward the Palestinians.

Sharon’s courting of Netanyahu has been widely seen by analysts and commentators as an attempt to stave off a challenge from him for the Likud leadership. Netanyahu, in an unusually revealing depiction of the back-room deal taking shape, confirmed that defusing their rivalry had been a prime issue in their talks.

Palestinians have been watching Sharon’s Cabinet-building efforts with alarm, fearing a lurch to the right as the jobs of outgoing Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Labor’s leader, are offered to conservative counterparts.

Both Mofaz and Netanyahu have advocated expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a step that would probably bring strong international objections.

Israel, meanwhile, came under sharp criticism Sunday in a report to be released officially Monday by the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. The 76-page document asserts that there is “clear evidence” that some acts committed by the Israeli military during a sweeping offensive in the West Bank last spring were war crimes.

The report, which focuses on army actions in the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus from April through June, documents what it describes as serious human rights violations by Israeli forces, including unlawful killings, torture and ill treatment of prisoners, denial of humanitarian assistance and use of Palestinian civilians as “human shields.”

Israel said it was studying specific allegations in the report but rejected its overall conclusions as “one-sided.” The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Israel regretted civilian deaths but that most occurred in the midst of a fierce military confrontation during which Palestinian gunmen deliberately used civilians as cover.