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Sharon favors talks — but won't be pressured

JERUSALEM — Poised to become prime minister, Ariel Sharon said Wednesday he would be prepared to hold peace talks with the Palestinians, "but not under the pressure of violence and terror."

Sharon presented his broad-based coalition to parliament Wednesday night, and the legislature was expected to approve it by a convincing margin, a move that would formally bring Sharon to power a month after his landslide election victory.

"We are fated to live together in this little land," said Sharon, referring to the Israelis and Palestinians. "We know that peace requires painful compromises for both sides."

Sharon said his coalition government offered the best hope of uniting Israel as he attempts to halt the worst outburst of violence in years. He also called on the Palestinians to abandon violence.

"If the Palestinians choose the path of peace . . . they will find me and my government a sincere and true partner," Sharon told parliament. "We will negotiate peace with the Palestinians but not under pressure of violence and terror."

While his speech struck a note of reconciliation, he did not specify any moves he was ready to make to lessen the current tensions.

Meanwhile, the militant Islamic group Hamas threatened to greet Sharon, considered an archenemy by the Palestinians, with a series of suicide bombings.

A Hamas statement in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday said the first of those attacks was carried out Sunday, when a Palestinian set off a bomb in the coastal city of Netanya, killing himself and three Israelis. The statement said the group's military wing was responsible, identifying the bomber as Ahmed Alyan, 23, from a West Bank refugee camp.

Sharon has blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for inciting his people to violence and failing to curb the militants. Israeli military commanders have charged that Arafat's allies have been involved in attacks.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, remain deeply suspicious of Sharon, whose reputation as a soldier and a politician has been built on his willingness to confront Israel's Arab rivals.

"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 prominent Palestinian spokeswoman. "We don't expect to see any progress on the peace front, and I hold no hopes for this government."

Though he has not disclosed how he plans to halt the violence, Sharon hoped his new government would present a united front to shore up an Israeli populace battered by failed peace efforts and months of deadly clashes.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, will sit at the same Cabinet table with the hawkish Rehavam Zeevi, the tourism minister, whose party advocates removing Palestinians from the West Bank.

Attracting the Labor Party of defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then enlisting faction after faction in the fractious Knesset, the 73-year-old Sharon hopes to remain in power where others have fallen, serving out his term until mid-2003. Sharon is Israel's fifth prime minister in less than six years.

Sharon's Likud party has only 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset, second in size to Labor's 23. The two major parties were decimated by an election reform enacted in 1996, which allowed Israelis to vote separately for prime minister and parliament.

That law, which allowed numerous small parties to win seats, was expected to be repealed Wednesday in the hours before Sharon's government won formal approval. That would make Sharon the third and last directly elected prime minister. Though he won the direct vote Feb. 6, he still had to form a majority coalition in parliament before taking power.

Barak served only 20 months of a four-year term, losing his majority in parliament because of unpopular concessions he offered the Palestinians for peace. The Palestinians did not accept the offers.

As a military officer and later as a political leader, Sharon has a decades-long record of confrontation with the Palestinians. For years he recommended replacing Jordan with a Palestinian state so that Israel could keep all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Now his attitude has changed, say his aides. Spokesman Raanan Gissin described Sharon as "pragmatic," saying he accepts the situation created by the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and interim accords that have given Palestinians control of significant parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Sharon would offer the Palestinians much less than Barak did, insisting on keeping all of Jerusalem and key parts of the West Bank still under Israeli control.

Sharon starts out with one of the largest majorities in Israeli political history. Not only does he have 73 members of parliament in his coalition, but also, another 19 are either in line to join or are expected to support his coalition in crucial votes. Only 28 of the 120 members of parliament appear to be solidly against Sharon.