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Netanyahu: Israel Hurt Under Sharon

November 7, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized his new boss on his first full day on the job, saying Israel has fallen into ``dire straits″ under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu and Sharon are engaged in a complex political battle _ they are working together in a caretaker government, yet they are also rivals, with each man seeking to lead the Likud Party into national elections in January.

In an interview Thursday in The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu attacked Sharon’s 20-month tenure as prime minister, saying he had been unable to bring an end to Palestinian attacks.

``I think one of the things we see is the tremendous escalation of terror,″ Netanyahu was quoted as saying. ``The economy is in worse shape...A lot of that is derived not so much from the lack of security but from the absence of a coherent economic policy.″

``The country is in dire straits and we have to get it out,″ he added.

Sharon and Netanyahu met Wednesday, shortly after Netanyahu was sworn in. They reportedly sparred over a U.S.-backed peace plan that Sharon has tentatively embraced. Netanyahu said the plan was ``not relevant″ as long as U.S. military action in Iraq is pending.

Netanyahu also spoke to U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, but they did not discuss the American ``road map″ for peace, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ron Prosor said.

He said the peace plan was clearly on hold until Israeli elections, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 28.

Nonetheless, U.S. envoy David Satterfield will visit the region next week to promote the plan, which also has the backing of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

Last week, the Labor Party quit Sharon’s coalition in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The walkout led to the collapse of the government. Sharon had hoped to keep his coalition government afloat without Labor, but a right-wing party, the National Union-Israel Beitenu, refused to join without changes in government policy. Sharon balked and, left without a majority, was forced to call early elections.

In the end, Likud may come out ahead. The latest polls show it and other parties on the right gaining ground _ and Sharon currently enjoys a slight lead over Netanyahu among Likud voters.

On Thursday, Sharon told business leaders he would not let anyone threaten Israel’s relationship with the United States. Sharon has been to the White House seven times and received strong backing from President Bush.

``I would not hurt the deep strategic understandings with the United States and the special relationship that has been woven with the American government,″ Sharon said.

Netanyahu said he had ``semantic″ differences with Bush’s outline for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, an idea Netanyahu has repeatedly said he opposes.

``The ability to have certain sovereign powers that have nothing to do with self-determination must be withheld″ from the Palestinians, Netanyahu said. For example, he said the Palestinians should not be allowed to have an army.

Netanyahu and Sharon have both said they have no plans to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Also Thursday, a suspected Palestinian suicide bomber and an apparent accomplice were killed in an explosion at a military checkpoint near the Jewish settlement of Kedumim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, the army said.

The suspected bomber, one of three Palestinians in a taxi stopped at the checkpoint, was wearing an explosive belt and yelled ``Allah Akbar″ (God is Great) as he ran at the troops, who fired at the man, the army said. The belt exploded, killing the second man and injuring the third. It was not clear whether the bomber detonated the explosives or if the shooting caused the blast.

In the Gaza Strip, four armed Palestinians kidnapped a German Red Cross official in the southern town of Khan Younis, the Red Cross said. The official, Nicolai Panke, was unharmed and Red Cross officials were in contact with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to arrange his release.

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