Suicide bomber kills 2 near Tel Aviv

J By John Ward Anderson

jERUSALEM – As violence raged outside between Israelis and Palestinians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon narrowly survived three confidence votes in parliament Monday night, buying time to form a right-wing coalition to lead the country until new elections are held.

A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated a bomb just outside a home-electronics store in a mall north of Tel Aviv, killing himself and at least two others, even as parliament voted to keep Sharon’s shaky government in power. Earlier, two Palestinian militants were killed in the West Bank city of Nablus in what Palestinians said was an assassination by the Israeli military, and Israeli soldiers killed six Palestinians in four incidents over the past 24 hours in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources and Israeli army officials said.

Lawmakers said the burst of bloodshed did not significantly change the votes on Sharon’s government but underscored the importance of political stability in a country torn by more than two years of a violent Palestinian uprising against continued Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon remains six votes shy of a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament; his largest coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, quit the government last week. But he beat back Monday night’s three no-confidence motions on the strength of negotiations with ultranationalist and Orthodox parties about forming a new government. With those talks just underway, it could be days or weeks before a new government emerges or Sharon is forced to call for elections.

Apart from the no-confidence votes, the Knesset approved the former army chief of staff, retired Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, as the new defense minister. And there were continuing negotiations between Sharon and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu over whether Netanyahu would join Sharon’s cabinet as the foreign minister.

Sharon and Netanyahu are both members of the right-wing Likud Party, but they are fierce rivals. Netanyahu is expected to challenge Sharon for leadership of the party, with the winner being Likud’s candidate for prime minister in the next elections.

Sharon’s offer to Netanyahu to become foreign minister – and Netanyahu’s acceptance, with the provision that Sharon calls early elections – were calculated by both to gain political advantage in advance of a Likud leadership election, political analysts said. Recent surveys put Sharon 12 to 19 points ahead of Netanyahu.

The party keeping Sharon’s government afloat tonight was the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, whose seven members were instrumental in giving Sharon his healthy margin of victory in the three-stage no-confidence ballot.

Yuri Stern, a lawmaker from Yisrael Beiteinu, said the main reason his party did not vote to bring down the government was Israel’s precarious economic situation and the necessity to approve Sharon’s 2003 budget. It was a dispute over $147 million in spending on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that prompted Labor to quit the government; the party wanted the money stripped from settlements and shifted to programs for the poor and elderly.

Stern said his party is in discussions with Sharon’s advisers to see if they can reach agreements that would allow Yisrael Beiteinu’s seven Knesset members to join Sharon’s 55-member coalition and boost its strength to 62. But even if it joins the coalition, Stern said, his party still favors elections “at the earliest possible moment.”

In an interview published Friday in the Hebrew weekly Yerushalayim, another Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, Avigdor Lieberman, said he favors blowing up Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah – with Arafat inside. And he said that Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which was annexed after the 1967 Middle East war, should be treated as terrorists, which he said means Israel should act “to destroy their homes, to confiscate their blue (Israeli) identity cards and to expel them from the country.”

Monday’s suicide bombing hit an open-air mall in Kfar Sava, about five miles north of Tel Aviv. The blast destroyed the Shekem electronics store, which is part of a major chain. Police said they were investigating reports that the store’s security guard may have died in the blast while struggling with the bomber at the store’s entrance.

Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian group, asserted responsibility for the blast and identified the bomber as Nabil Sawalhe, who the organization said was a resident of the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, about 30 miles north of Jerusalem.

“An evening at the mall became an evening drenched in terror,” said David Baker, an official in Sharon’s office. “The Palestinian trail of terror continues unabated.”

Two Palestinian militants, members of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, were killed when their vehicle exploded in Nablus about 2:30 p.m. Witnesses said the vehicle, a GMC van, exploded while traveling in the western part of the city and might have been hit by a missile from an Israeli helicopter. Other reports said a plane might have electronically detonated a bomb hidden inside the van.

The Israeli army had no comment.

Nablus residents said the two dead men were members of Hamas, including Hamed Sawder, the uncle of Mohammed Bustami, a Hamas member who blew himself up on Oct. 27 near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, killing three Israeli solders and injuring 18 other people.