Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon

Sharon, taking over as Israel’s prime minister with a mandate to end months of bloodshed, said today his broad-based coalition is ready to make peace with the Palestinians if they “abandon the way of violence, terrorism and incitement.”

The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, approved Sharon’s coalition government today by a vote of 79-21, clearing the way for his swearing-in.

Sharon, the nation’s fifth prime minister in six years, heads a large and unwieldy government that must face a protracted Palestinian uprising, a broken-down peace process, and an anxiety-ridden Israel.

In a speech to the Knesset, Sharon said his coalition is ready to make “painful compromises” toward peace with the Palestinians, but not “under the pressure of violence and terror.” The coalition was expected to win easy approval by parliament tonight, a move that would formally bring Sharon to power.

“If the Palestinians choose the path of peace … they will find me and my government a sincere and true partner,” Sharon told the Knesset. Sharon noted that he has promised to build no new settlements on disputed lands — a departure from his past position as a hard-line patron of the settler movement.

Despite the conciliatory tone of Sharon’s speech, he did not say how he would stop more than five months of Mideast violence or lessen tensions with the Palestinians, who have long reviled Sharon for his prominent role in Mideast conflicts, including the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

“The lip service for peace and the generalities don’t make peace. Peacemaking requires details,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator. “To make peace means a decision to end the (Israeli military) occupation” in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks, Sharon’s low-key pronouncements have focused on dealing with the immediate problems of halting the fighting with the Palestinians and establishing a government sturdy enough to withstand the constant buffeting of Israel’s unruly politics.

A former general who won glory and notoriety for repeated confrontations with Israel’s Arab neighbors, Sharon rejects the grand ambitions of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, whose government crumbled amid his failed attempt to strike a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians.

Sharon says the most he would countenance is a long-term interim agreement. A final peace deal is years, perhaps even a generation away, he has often said. Sharon blames Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for inciting his people to violence and failing to curb the militants.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, remain deeply suspicious of Sharon. “The new Israeli government must choose between continuing in the policy of talks or continuing its recent policy of blockades and siege and escalation,” said Nabil Aburdeneh, a spokesman for Arafat.

Sharon “wants to achieve a series of interim agreements (with the Palestinians) which is not really a peace agenda,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman. “We don’t expect to see any progress on the peace front, and I hold no hopes for this government.”

The militant Islamic group Hamas threatened to greet Sharon with an onslaught of bombs. The group claimed responsibility for one of two fatal attacks in the past week. Of the more than 420 killed in five months of fighting, most have been Palestinians.

Barak departs

Meanwhile, Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak left political life Wednesday, insisting to the end that the Jewish state’s only solution for a lasting peace would be to extricate itself from Palestinian territories.

“I am sure the path we led was and remains the right path and that the future will prove this,” Barak told parliament today in a farewell speech. “The hope of peace and security for the citizens of Israel lies in the principle of separation between us and the Palestinians.”

Barak said that if Israel did not work to set borders between itself and the Palestinians, either in a peace accord or unilaterally if peace talks fail, “it will endanger not only the security of (Israel’s) citizens but its character as a Jewish and democratic state.” 

Palestinians seek an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Barak was reported ready to withdraw from more than 90 percent of those areas in peace talks conducted since July. But he said the offer, which Palestinians rejected and Sharon lambasted, did not bind Israel’s next government. At the same time, Sharon must have “the courage to admit that the ongoing situation is a recipe for everlasting friction,” Barak said.

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