Shas emerges as a big winner as Sharon solidifies his Cabinet

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented his new government for Knesset approval on Wednesday, after the fervently religious Shas Party signed a coalition agreement that gives Sharon a parliamentary majority.

Sharon signed up several major and minor parties in the past two weeks to ensure him a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, which approved the unity government by a 72-21 vote.

With Labor, Shas, the leftist One Nation Party, the immigrant-rights Yisrael Ba'Aliyah and the far-right National Union-Israel Our Home factions on board, Sharon's coalition had grown to 73. Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, the sole member of the New Way Party, will become a deputy defense minister. She is the daughter of the slain dovish Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Knesset voted to cancel the direct election system, under which voters cast separate ballots for prime minister and for Knesset members. It will return to the vote-by-party system used until 1996.

Sunday's terrorist suicide bombing in Netanya, which killed three Israelis and wounded 93, was widely seen as pushing Shas to enter the government.

Following the attack, Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai joined the coalition discussions, saying the security situation required the formation of a unity government as quickly as possible.

Likud officials hope that, with coalition talks mostly wrapped up, a majority in the Knesset will support the budget.

On the yeshiva student draft issue, Shas demanded that Sharon extend the current draft arrangement — which allows deferrals for students as long as they remain in their seminaries — as a condition for its entry into the government.

Shas managed to achieve a significant number of its demands in the coalition talks. It received five ministerial posts, including the powerful Interior Ministry for Yishai, who also will serve as deputy prime minister.

Shas also will control the Labor and Welfare, Religious Affairs and Health ministries. The fifth minister will oversee Jerusalem affairs.

Shas is also receiving three deputy ministerial posts. Among them is a deputy education minister to oversee Shas' private school network, control of which was a fatal bone of contention between Shas and the leftist Meretz Parties in the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The Likud also agreed to create a religious broadcasting authority that will operate out of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which likely will result in the legalization of Shas' pirate radio stations.

However, Sharon refused Shas' request for control over the Civil Service Commission, the State Companies Authority and a representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

Sharon's other major coalition partner, Labor, will hold eight Cabinet positions, including the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Transportation, Agriculture, Industry and Trade, and Science, Culture and Sport.

Two Laborites will serve as ministers without portfolio, including Druze Knesset member Saleh Tarif, Israel's first Arab minister.

Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman of the immigrant National Union-Israel Our Home Party is expected to serve as national infrastructure minister.

Sharon's generosity toward his coalition partners has led to rumblings of discontent within Likud, which sees many of the plum posts going to others.

As of midweek, Likud ministers include Limor Livnat for the Education Ministry, Silvan Shalom to Finance, and Danny Naveh as minister without portfolio, serving as a liaison between the Knesset and the Cabinet.

In addition, Meir Sheetrit is expected to go to the justice department and Uzi Landau will be public security minister.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah accepted the Likud's offer of the Housing Ministry.

But the pro-settler National Religious Party will not join the government.