Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday signed up the secularist Shinui party, forming a right-leaning coalition that will likely make it difficult to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state and could redefine the role of religion in the state.
The deal with Shinui gives Sharon control over 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, the minimum he needs to run the government. On Sunday, the pro-settlement National Religious Party, which opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, joined a Sharon government.
The alliance of Sharon's hawkish Likud, the NRP and Shinui marks the first time ultra-Orthodox parties are not part of a Likud government.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops dug in for a second night at Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip after killing six Palestinians in an attack intended to stop rocket fire at Israel.
Nine Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in Gaza and the West Bank on Sunday, reflecting the escalating violence over the past week. Since Feb. 15, when a bomb blew up an Israeli tank in Gaza, killing four Israeli soldiers, Israel has stepped up its attacks in Gaza, killing 32 Palestinians in incursions and clashes at Jewish settlements.
A U.S.-made fighter jet crashed in northern Israel during a rare snow storm Monday after the pilot parachuted to safety, the military said. No injuries were reported.
The aircraft was a $50 million F-16, the military said.
The new coalition agreement is vague on how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.
Coalition negotiators said it is based on a December speech in which Sharon called for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, but did not explicitly say he would dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The NRP leader, Effie Eitam, said the still-unpublished coalition guidelines "include absolutely no reference to removing or freezing settlements." Instead, he said, "they speak about enlarging settlements according to natural growth." Eitam, an ex-general, recently suggested the Palestinians set up their state in the Egyptian Sinai Desert.
Shinui is more moderate than the Likud or the NRP and supports the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. However, Shinui leader Yosef Lapid has said there is no point in resuming peace talks as long as Yasser Arafat is the Palestinian leader and attacks on Israelis continue.
Shinui believes reaching a peace agreement is secondary to what it considers Israel's most pressing problem — perceived religious coercion and the disproportionate influence of ultra-Orthodox parties because of their longtime role as kingmakers in Israeli politics. The party nearly tripled its representation, from six to 15 parliament seats, in January's election.
The agreement allowed Sharon to avoid committing to specific steps toward resuming peace talks. Sharon's talks with the leader of the moderate Labor party, Amram Mitzna, broke down over his refusal to put in writing some of the painful concessions he claims he is prepared to make.
"He (Sharon) keeps saying he is ready for painful concessions in the future, but no one knows if he is bluffing," said political analyst Hanan Crystal. "He chose a government where he is in the middle. There are people right of him, and there are people left of him, and he remains the king of Israel."
Israeli media reported that Sharon was also close to agreement with the National Union, an ultranationalist bloc that includes members who favor expelling Palestinians from Israeli-ruled areas.
The focus of the latest violence was the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in the northeast corner of Gaza, across from the Israeli town of Sderot. Israel said it sent forces into Beit Hanoun to stop militants from firing rockets at the Israeli town. However, before sundown Sunday, with Israeli troops controlling Beit Hanoun, Palestinians fired three more homemade Qassam rockets at Sderot, causing some panic but no injuries.
The unguided, simple Qassam rockets carry a warhead with about 12 pounds of explosives and have a range of about 3 miles, according to the Israeli military. The edge of Sderot is less than half a mile from the Gaza fence, putting it in range of rockets fired from outside Beit Hanoun.
Sharon's new coalition could put him on a collision course with the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The Quartet has formulated a three-stage "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005 that would include, among other things, a freeze of Jewish settlement construction.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned Sharon for including NRP in his government, saying the "road map" would meet the same fate as other failed peace efforts.
"They have sent the road map into the archives along with the Mitchell and Tenet understandings," Erekat said, referring to other international deals meant to end more than two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and bring about a renewal of peace talks.
The new government could redefine the relationship between the secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority. Shinui wants to revoke legislation that enables many Jewish seminary students to continue avoiding the draft, and has been promised the law would be replaced within a year.
In the coalition agreement, Shinui was promised control of two key portfolios dealing with the role of religion in the state — justice and interior.
Among other things, the Interior Ministry determines who is classified as a Jew in the population registry. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which ran the ministry for many years, adopted strict criteria and repeatedly denied citizenship to new immigrants with non-Jewish family members.