Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to begin courting yesterday a second ultra-Orthodox party in an attempt to hold together his new, more moderate coalition -- key to the successful implementation of his Gaza withdrawal plan.
A last-minute parliamentary victory Wednesday apparently drove home for Sharon his need to fold the ultra-Orthodox Shas party into his coalition -- which includes Shimon Peres' Labor Party.
Thirteen "rebels" from Sharon's Likud Party -- who vehemently oppose the plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of the year -- decided on Wednesday to support the budget in an initial parliamentary vote, giving Sharon time to woo Shas.
If the 2005 budget plan does not pass another two parliamentary votes by March 31, Sharon's government will automatically fall and an election will have to be held within three months. Elections are scheduled for November 2006.
Sharon was to meet Shas leader Eli Yishai later Thursday, the latest in a series of talks with Shas, which has said it will only support the Gaza withdrawal plan if it is coordinated with the Palestinians.
Yishai said if Shas joins the coalition, it will remain steadfast in its social and religious demands, as well as its position that the pullout be coordinated.
Israeli media reported that Shas is demanding four ministerial positions and social programs that will cost 1 billion shekels (US$230.5 million).
"Apparently it won't be possible to keep this coalition if Shas doesn't join," Yishai told Israel's Army Radio on Thursday.
"If we join the government we will join with a great stomachache, a political stomachache. But if I have to choose between my political stomachache and the stomach-ache of the children, I will choose my stomachache," he added.
Since Yasser Arafat's death on Nov. 11, Sharon has said he would be willing to coordinate with the Palestinians his withdrawal plan -- which was initially a "unilateral" Israeli initiative.
After Sunday's Palestinian presidential election -- which swept the moderate Mahmoud Abbas to victory -- Sharon repeated his intention publicly, a clear message to Shas that he would be willing to make the government a comfortable place for the ultra-Orthodox party.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man who was driving his pregnant neighbor to hospital yesterday while the army was carrying out a nighttime raid in the Gaza Strip, witnesses and medics said.
An Israeli army spokesman denied shooting the man but said troops fired warning shots as the car sped towards them in what the soldiers, on an operation to detain wanted militants, thought was an imminent attack and the vehicle crashed.
Dr Mahmoud al-Assali, head of Beit Lahiya hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, said the driver, Ala Hassouna, was killed by a bullet to the eye.
Witnesses said the car did not crash.
"Israeli forces fired directly at the car, killing the driver and wounding two passengers. The pregnant woman survived through a miracle," Assali said, basing his remarks on the survivors' accounts.
Hanan Ahmed Al-Beshawi, 27, later gave birth to a healthy boy, the hospital said.