The head of Israel's opposition Labor Party yesterday laid out a series of tough demands for joining the government, suggesting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could face an uphill battle in shoring up his fractured coalition.
Opposition leader Shimon Peres said in an interview that Sharon must agree to a far-reaching Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and commit to negotiating with the Palestinians about the Gaza withdrawal.
Sharon has resisted similar ideas in the past, but may need Labor to shore up his fractured government. He has been widely expected to court Labor since two hardline ministers resigned two weeks ago to protest the Gaza pullout plan.
The defections left the government with 59 seats in the 120-member parliament, threatening its ability to survive.
Labor, which holds 21 seats, has provided a "safety net" to Sharon, blocking no-confidence motions to bring down the government.
Neither Labor nor Sharon's Likud Party have publicly committed themselves to a national unity government, and some lawmakers in both parties have expressed opposition to an alliance.
In an interview, Peres laid down a series of strict conditions. He said Sharon must accept a wide ranging withdrawal from the West Bank, which Israel conquered in the 1967 Middle East War.
"My vision ... is for a return to the 1967 borders with minor adjustments for security and Jewish settlements," Peres said. He did not elaborate.
Sharon's plan calls for a withdrawal from only four isolated enclaves in the West Bank.
Sharon has not revealed how much West Bank land he might be willing to forgo in the future. But he has said that in exchange for the Gaza pullback, he wants to keep and expand several large settlement blocs in the West Bank -- a demand that has won tacit support from US President George W. Bush.
Some 230,000 Israeli settlers live amid more than 2 million Palestinians in the Rhode Island-sized area. Palestinians demand a full withdrawal from all of Gaza and the West Bank.
Peres also said Sharon must change the nature of his Gaza withdrawal plan by negotiating directly with Palestinian officials.
"We can and should talk to Abu Ala," he said, referring to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
Sharon envisions a pullout coordinated with Egypt, which borders Gaza, and the US, but without input from the Palestinian leadership. After nearly four years of fighting, he says the Palestinians are not serious negotiating partners.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior government official said it was too early to respond to Peres' conditions for Labor-Likud unity.
"There have been no negotiations, no invitations," the official said. "When an invitation comes I'm sure there will be negotiations on conditions for cooperation."
In other developments, several hundred Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers and border police yesterday in the West Bank village of Azawiyah. Residents have held a series of demonstrations in recent days against construction of a separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank.
Palestinians say Israel plans on confiscating thousands of hectares of land in the area to build the structure, which Israel says is needed to protect against suicide bombings. Palestinians criticize the barrier as a land grab.
In yesterday's violence, an elderly Palestinian man approached the troops and was thrown to the ground, witnesses said. Troops used tear gas and clubs to disperse the crowd, but no serious injuries were reported.