Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called opposition Labor party leader Shimon Peres yesterday to start talks on forming a coalition government, a government source said.
Sharon telephoned Peres after winning backing from his own Likud party late Thursday for Labor to take part in a new national unity coalition government.
"Negotiations should begin at the beginning of next week after the Labor leadership give them the green light Saturday evening," the close aide to Sharon told reporters.
The adviser said that Sharon was also yesterday expected to invite the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to join.
Members of the right-wing Likud's central committee late Thursday approved a proposal by Sharon to open negotiations with the main opposition Labor party and ultra-Orthodox parties about joining a new broad-based coalition.
The vote meant that Sharon kept his controversial plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip on track without the need for new elections.
Sharon, without a parliamentary majority for the last six months, had warned he would have no option but to call early elections if he was not allowed to bring the center-left Labor party into a national unity government.
Such a scenario would almost certainly have derailed the tight timetable for his so-called disengagement plan which should see all 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza uprooted from their homes by September of next year.
The victory is no guarantee that Sharon's government will remain in power and evacuate the 8,000 settlers from Gaza next summer as planned. But a defeat would have been a disaster for Sharon, and the pullout could have been jeopardized.
If Sharon can forge the coalition he wants, he will have political partners who support the pullout.
"This will put him in a strong position for the Gaza disengagement," said Mark Heller, a political analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
While Israeli governments are notoriously unstable and prone to collapse, Heller said he believed the coalition envisioned by Sharon would have a decent chance of remaining in place until the next election is scheduled, in late 2006.
Sharon's plan calls for withdrawing all settlers and soldiers from Gaza while seeking to strengthen Israel's hold on West Bank settlements.
As ballots were being cast on Thursday, Sharon warned that rejection of his plan would lead to new elections, which few Israelis want.
"Either Israel can move forward, or it can regress and embark upon an election campaign," he told Israeli television.
The current government rests on just the 40 Likud members in the 120-seat Parliament. To regain a majority, Sharon plans to court the Labor Party, headed by Shimon Peres. Labor and an allied party have 21 seats, which would give Sharon the bare minimum needed for a majority.
Gaza remains volatile. Israeli troops killed at least three Palestinians in two shootings, one on Wednesday night and the second on Thursday morning, according to the Israeli military and Palestinian medical officials.
In both instances, the soldiers fired on Palestinians who were in a forbidden zone for Palestinians along the Gaza-Egyptian border, the military said.
Israel carried out two airstrikes on Thursday, the first in weeks. In the first attack, a drone fired a missile at a wanted Palestinian militant, Jamal Abu Samhadna, as he was traveling in a car in southern Gaza, near Rafah. He was wounded along with two bodyguards.