New government sworn in; Sharon: First task is healing economy
PM says that peace talks can only take place after terror ceases; Sharansky and NRP ministers to be sworn in on Monday.
The Knesset approved the new government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a vote of 66-48 shortly after midnight Thursday.
After the vote, Sharon was sworn in, followed by 19 of the 23 ministers in his government. The National Religious Party ministers will be sworn in on Monday, after the party has voted on who will fill the two ministerial posts it has been allotted.
Yisrael B'Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky, who joined up with the Likud in the aftermath of the election, will also be sworn in Monday as minister without portfolio, with responsibility for Jerusalem and Diaspora relations. Sharansky's swearing-in was delayed for procedural reasons, after the opposition argued that the coalition agreement between the Likud and Yisrael B'Aliyah had not been presented to the Knesset.
Sharon also plans to bring Dan Meridor into the cabinet, after asking the Knesset for permission to expand the number of ministers in the government.
Earlier, at the outset of the Knesset debate, Sharon told the plenum that the new government's first order of business would be to heal Israel's ailing economy. Tackling the country's economic woes, he said, would require "hard decisions."
Sharon said the new government's policy on the moribund peace process was based on a speech he gave in Herzliya last year, in which he outlined support for a political process based on President George Bush's June 24, 2001 speech on the Middle East, which included a reference to an end to the occupation and a two-state solution. In the Herzliya address, Sharon sketched a vision of a highly limited Palestinian entity, which would be demilitarized and would exist on dislocated swathes of land in the West Bank.
Before there is any progress on the diplomatic front, however, Sharon said there would have to be "a cessation of terror and incitement," a change in the Palestinian leadership, and fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority.
He also said the Palestinians would have to give up on the right of return for refugees if they ultimately wanted to reach a comprehensive agreement with Israel, and that Jerusalem would remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty.
Finally, Sharon told the plenum that a "central" goal of his new government would be to increase immigration to Israel.
Responding to Sharon, Labor chairman and opposition leader Amram Mitzna attacked the makeup of the new government, saying there was little chance it would be able to effectively confront Israel's economic problems and the diplomatic challenge presented by the conflict with the Palestinians.
Mitzna said he expected Sharon to continue to talk of a settlement with the Palestinians, but at the same time for such a settlement to drift further and further away.
Regarding illegal settlements, he said he expected that the prime minister would oppose them verbally, but then "close your eyes to new caravans on hilltops."
Netanyahu accepts position of finance ministerOutgoing Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Sharon earlier Thursday that he had agreed to accept the position of finance minister, even though Sharon rejected Netanyahu's demand that he also be appointed to the position of acting prime minister.
Earlier, Sharon's associates had announced that the prime minister and Netanyahu had reached an agreement on the terms of the finance minister's position. That announcement came hours after sources in Netanyahu's camp said that there had not been any approaches from the prime minister since the early hours of the morning.
It was anticipated that Netanyahu would accept the post after Sharon agreed Wednesday night to transfer the Government Companies Authority to the treasury.
Earlier Thursday, Ehud Olmert accepted the post of industry and trade minister, despite his previous statement that he would only accept a senior ministerial portfolio and would resign from the Knesset if he did not get one.
The former Jerusalem mayor will also be acting prime minister, will be a member of the security cabinet, of the team conducting talks with the Palestinians, and his office will have responsibility for the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Also Thursday, Sharon appointed Likud MKs Danny Naveh as health minister and Tzipi Livni as minister for immigrant absorption. Former public security minister Uzi Landau and former justice minister Meir Sheetrit will both serve as ministers without portfolio.
Shaul Mofaz will continue to serve as defense minister in the new government and Limor Livnat will continue to serve as education minister. MK Yisrael Katz will serve as agriculture minister, and Deputy Defense Minister Gideon Ezra as minister without portfolio, in charge of coordinating between the government and the Knesset.