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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Swings Right, But Policy Stays Put

JERUSALEM -- Hawks seem set to dominate in Ariel Sharon's government now that the doves have flown.

But the breakup of the rightist Israeli prime minister's ruling coalition after the center-left Labor Party quit in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements appeared unlikely to lead to a radical change in government policy.

A number of restraints, from a possible U.S. war on Iraq to an ailing Israeli economy, could keep former general Sharon from marching blindly to the tune of ultranationalist partners in the narrow government he hopes to form.

"He will have to change some of his policies," Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said Thursday, predicting Sharon could step up building in existing settlements.

"But he understands that Israel is alone in the world [except for U.S. support]. He understands the United States is at the forefront of the war on terrorism. He understands that Iraq is about to be attacked. And he knows that if Israel inflames the region, then it doesn't serve his own purposes for re-election," Hazan said.

Cabinet ministers within Sharon's own Likud party have acknowledged that Israel's military battle against a two-year-old Palestinian uprising would have to be tempered to fit U.S. regional interests as conflict with Iraq approaches.

Sharon has paid seven visits to the White House since taking office in March 2001, and has usually retreated when caught crossing lines set down in by U.S. President George W. Bush.

"We were told by the Americans that they told Sharon very clearly he can't do three things that will enrage Washington: reoccupy the Gaza Strip, hurt [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat or [exile] Palestinians," said a senior Palestinian official close to the Palestinian president.

Another Palestinian official voiced concern that the appointment of former Israeli army chief Shaul Mofaz, a vocal hawk, as defense minister to replace the departing Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Labor spelled disaster.

"Now, we are worried that without Labor, they will reoccupy Gaza because [Ben-Eliezer] was against it, and Mofaz wants to hurt or deport Arafat," the second official said.

Israeli forces have already tested Washington's patience by reoccupying Palestinian cities in the West Bank and confining Arafat to a sandbagged headquarters in a battered presidential compound.

Religious and ultranationalist potential partners in a new government are likely to press Sharon to do more.

But he has been riding high in opinion polls, indicating his policies have won public consensus and signaling to the far-right he would not shirk new elections if their demands were too ambitious.

Sharon has until October 2003 before he is obliged to call a general election. Most Israeli commentators expect any government he puts together to restore a parliamentary majority shattered by Labor's departure would be short-lived.

He may have be careful with settlements, as they are a key campaign issue in Israel's recession-hit economy.

"If [Sharon] does go crazy on the settlements in the midst of a financial crisis, [then] Labor can push the line it's been using for the last two days -- that everybody's pocketbook is being hit because of the settlements," Hazan said.