Thu, Aug 05, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Secular party's concession strengthens Sharon coalition

PULLOUT PLAN The moderate Shinui party reversed its stance and said it would work with an ultra-Orthodox party, giving the Israeli prime minister breathing space

AP , JERUSALEM

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pictured during a visit to an Intel factory in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat on Tuesday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved closer to solid Cabinet support for his Gaza pullout plan on Tuesday when a secular party that backs the withdrawal agreed to serve together with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish faction to boost his shaky ruling coalition.

In the Gaza Strip, a roadside bomb planted by Palestinian militants and meant for an Israeli bulldozer operating in the Rafah refugee camp took three Palestinian lives instead.

Also, in a video that seemed modeled on taped warnings issued by the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the violent Islamic Hamas threatened to bombard an Israeli town with rockets.

Sharon lost his parliamentary majority over his plan to pull all Israeli settlers and soldiers out of Gaza and remove four small West Bank enclaves, a stark turnaround for a politician who spent decades boosting expansion of Jewish settlements.

Several Cabinet ministers from Sharon's Likud Party oppose the Gaza plan, further endangering his hold on power.

Trying to prop up his government, Sharon has been negotiating with the moderate opposition Labor Party and the small ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) faction.

That created problems for Shinui, Sharon's main current partner. Shinui ran on a platform of opposing the ultra-Orthodox factions, pledging to keep them out of the Cabinet.

Shinui was created for the 2001 elections on a one-issue platform of reducing special privileges enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as exemption from military service and extra state funding for schools and seminaries.

Now Shinui has softened its stand, saying that it's prepared to serve with UTJ under certain conditions, as long as Labor is brought in to the coalition and the larger ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, is left out.

However, Israeli media reported that Sharon rejected Shinui's conditions. Negotiations are expected to continue.

Shinui's abrupt change made it a target for Israeli pundits.

"They folded," screamed a huge front page headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "Lapid's lost virginity" was the title of a commentary in the Haaretz daily, referring to Shinui leader Joseph Lapid.

"There are times in life when you must understand the requirements of the moment," said Lapid, explaining his reversal.

No guarantee

UTJ officials said they were not opposed to joining a coalition with Shinui, but their final agreement was not guaranteed.

An alliance of Likud, Labor, Shinui and UTJ would have the support of 79 seats in the 120-member parliament -- reducing the leverage of the Likud rebels.

Labor negotiators say they are close to agreement with Likud over the Gaza pullout plan, but gaps remain over other domestic issues.

A Likud-Shinui-UTJ or Likud-Labor-UTJ team would command a small majority but would be vulnerable to defections by Likud rebels.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Palestinian militants tried to blow up an armored Israeli bulldozer with a roadside bomb, but the device sent shrapnel flying hundreds of meters and killed three Palestinians instead. At least 10 other people were wounded. No Israelis were hurt.

Tunnels

The Israeli army was operating in the area near the Egyptian border to uncover tunnels used to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip.

Hamas said two of the casualties in Rafah were its members, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed one of the dead men. Witnesses said they were not among the militants who planted the bomb.

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