Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Sharon woos Labor for coalition

NEGOTIATIONS The Israeli prime minister is seeking to shore up support for his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and uproot four settlements in the West Bank


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday invited the opposition Labor Party to open negotiations on joining his government, and officials said they expected the two sides to reach a deal relatively quickly.

A broad-based coalition government with Labor would give Sharon much-needed support as he pushes forward with his contentious plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

But Sharon also risks alienating hard-liners within his Likud Party who oppose a union with the


Sharon met opposition leader Shimon Peres privately for one hour yesterday morning. Both sides said the talks had gone well.

"The prime minister turned to Shimon Peres and asked him to open negotiations on Labor joining the government. He asked that they begin as soon as possible," said Yoram Dori, a spokesman for Peres.

Dori said Peres would meet with Labor lawmakers later yesterday to discuss the invitation. The party is scheduled a meeting today, when it is expected to accept the offer.

Officials close to both men said they expected a deal to be reached soon.

Labor lawmaker Haim Ramon said negotiations became a realistic option after three conditions were met: Sharon's government accepted the Gaza withdrawal plan, the ultranationalist National Union left the coalition in protest of the planned pullout and the attorney general decided not to charge Sharon in a corruption case.

"Those were the conditions and now we will open negotiations on a range of issues," he told Israel Radio.

Sharon has turned to Labor after facing increasing opposition to his Gaza plan from far-right coalition partners and hard-liners in his own party. Defections from the government have left him as leader of a fragile minority coalition.

By September next year, the prime minister plans to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and uproot four isolated settlements in the West Bank.

The withdrawals are part of his "unilateral disengagement" plan, which Sharon says will reduce friction with the Palestinians and boost Israel's securit; he refuses to negotiate directly with the Palestinians.

In a recent interview, Peres said he would not join the government unless Sharon agrees to resume talks with the Palestinians and to commit to a much larger withdrawal from the West Bank.

But the two men are likely to resolve their difference.

Peres, a Nobel peace laureate and a former prime minister now in his 80s, is widely believed to want to return to a position of power.

Sharon has few options as he tries to carry out his plan. Without Labor, his fragile coalition faces a strong risk of collapse.

But Sharon also faces opposition to the move from within his Likud Party. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed concern that Labor would hamper his economic reforms and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom could lose his post to Peres.

Addressing a Likud rally on Sunday, Uzi Cohen, a member of the powerful Likud Central Committee, warned Sharon against bringing Labor into the coalition.

"If the Labor party enters the coalition it will bring a cancer into the Likud. Whoever harms Silvan will face the third world war," Cohen said.

The Israeli media speculated yesterday that Sharon would offer Labor a relatively large number of Cabinet posts to entice Peres to give up the foreign post.

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