Hawks Sharon, Sharansky Vie to Run Demoralized Israeli Foreign Ministry

Article excerpt

After 19 months under a foreign minister who almost never went to work, Israel's once-proud Foreign Ministry now is being run directly by a prime minister who distrusts its staff and doesn't believe its reports.

Dovish Foreign Minister David Levy resigned Sunday after being routinely humiliated and cut out of major policy-making for the past 19 months by his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But now, two forceful figures - victorious veteran Gen. Ariel Sharon and former Soviet gulag prisoner Natan Sharansky - are front-runners to succeed Mr. Levy and revive what was once one of the top posts in Israeli politics, sources in Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party said.

If either of them gets it, the Foreign Ministry could regain some of its lost influence, they said.

"Sharon and Sharansky share a sense of responsibility for the future, and this is widely recognized in Israel," said Shoshanna Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

"Their influence is increased because of the widely held perception that - right or wrong - they act from a higher calling than just short-term political calculations," Mrs. Bryen said. "They seek what is good for the country."

Mr. Sharansky, the trade and industry minister, became a hero in Israel and among Jews worldwide during his 15 years in a Soviet jail in the 1970s and 1980s. He is a political hawk distrustful of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the peace process. Mr. Netanyahu trusts him for those very reasons, the Likud sources said.

Appointing Mr. Sharansky would also strengthen the loyalty of his Yisrael B'Aliya Russian immigrant party to the governing coalition, the sources said.

Mr. Sharon, the infrastructure minister, has far more support among conservatives and in the prime minister's own strife-torn Likud, party sources said. But Mr. Netanyahu is reluctant to appoint Mr. Sharon because he knows his driving ambition and energy could make him a formidable rival in the high-profile job, they said. …