JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Friday with former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, a sometimes ally and sometimes rival, and offered him the job of foreign minister in the fragile minority government.
The talks at Sharon’s sheep farm in the Negev desert ended with neither man speaking to the reporters. A senior Israeli diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Sharon was offering Netanyahu the foreign minister’s post.
The official said the two agreed to meet again Sunday — an indication that Netanyahu had not turned down the offer. “The door hasn’t been closed,” the official said.
The moderate Labor Party, the largest faction in Sharon’s coalition, quit the Cabinet this week over a budget dispute, leaving the government without a majority.
The walkout made vacant the foreign affairs portfolio, formerly held by Labor’s Shimon Peres.
Peres was a welcome visitor in foreign capitals and a skilled advocate of Israeli policies at a time when they face fierce criticism abroad.
Netanyahu is widely expected to challenge Sharon for the leadership of the Likud party before the next election. The American-educated Netanyahu is skilled in using the media and experienced in diplomacy.
When Netanyahu was prime minister from 1996-99, he brought Sharon in as foreign minister for part of his tenure.
It appeared Sharon would prefer to bring Netanyahu into the government, where he would be subject to Cabinet discipline, than allow him to offer up criticism from the outside.
Sharon has offered Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s post as defense minister to former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz.
Mofaz has a reputation as a hard-liner and oversaw the army’s crackdown against the Palestinian uprising for most of the past two years. Mofaz also has advocated exiling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Sharon is looking to small, far-right parties in an attempt to maintain a viable coalition, but he said he would not change his positions to accommodate them.
“I am on the way to forming a government with a different makeup,” he told the Maariv newspaper. “Policy lines will remain exactly the same policy lines and its goals won’t change: war on terror, renewing political negotiations and reaching an agreement.”
Sharon’s coalition now has only 55 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
One candidate for inclusion is the far-right National Union-Israel Beiteinu party, which has seven seats, enough to restore the government’s majority.
The party was originally part of Sharon’s coalition when it was formed last year, but later left amid policy disputes.
National Union legislators have said they want Sharon to distance himself from some of the policies they believe were put in place to appease the Labor Party.
The National Union opposes negotiations with the Palestinians and favors annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands the Palestinians want for a future state. Some party members support expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli newspapers reported that Sharon talked to U.S. administration officials on Thursday, and gave them assurances he would not make major policy changes.
Meanwhile, in a move that signals the declining relations between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has decided to put the military and civilian offices responsible for contacts with the Palestinians under one umbrella.
Israeli officials say the move is meant to make things more efficient for Palestinian security officials who coordinate with the army, and for Palestinian civilians who use the offices to obtain work permits, entry permits to Israel and other documents.