Sharon invites Labor to talks on coalition

Goal of Likud leader is to advance plan for withdrawal from Gaza

December 11, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has invited the left-leaning Labor Party to enter talks on joining his conservative governing coalition, a move meant to ensure that he can move ahead with his plan to relinquish the Gaza Strip.

The Likud leader, 76, made the offer yesterday in a telephone call to the head of Labor, Shimon Peres, 81. The two men, whose acquaintance dates back to the earliest days of Israeli statehood, have maintained a close personal friendship despite decades-old ideological differences.

Sharon approached Peres within hours of securing the blessing of his party's policymaking body, the Central Committee, to open negotiations with Labor and two smaller religious political parties. The same Likud body had voted this year to ban such negotiations.

A Likud-Labor coalition would be a marriage of some of the country's most fervent hawks with its leading doves. But traditional Israeli political fault lines have been blurred by Sharon's plan to withdraw the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, along with four smaller ones in the northern West Bank. Labor has endorsed the initiative, but it is furiously opposed by many within the prime minister's party.

Despite their opposing political views, the two parties have joined forces before. Peres served as foreign minister when Labor was part of Sharon's governing coalition in 2001 and 2002. Israeli news reports have said that if the alliance is sealed, Peres will probably serve as deputy prime minister and perhaps be given high-level responsibilities in connection with the Gaza pullout.

Peres has said that although Labor disagrees with many of Sharon's policies, including his budget plan, it considers the Gaza withdrawal a top priority.

"I think the people expect movement in the direction of peace, and that we pull out of Gaza and the northern West Bank, so that mothers [of soldiers] can breathe a sigh of relief," Peres told Israel Radio.

"There are difficulties ahead - so what?" he said.

The notion of a Sharon-Peres partnership is provoking grumbling in the ranks of their parties. Younger rivals in Labor see Peres as trying to prolong his grip on the party's leadership, whereas Sharon's right-wing foes are embittered by what they consider his betrayal of the settlement movement, which he long nurtured.

Several months ago, when Sharon's coalition began to crumble over the Gaza plan, an editorial cartoon in the Haaretz newspaper depicted the two strolling hand in hand like old lovers, with Peres' head resting on Sharon's shoulder. "Darling, my children don't like it," the Peres character says ruefully. "Neither do mine," says Sharon.

The prime minister's political base has eroded steadily since he unveiled his Gaza plan last year, though polls consistently indicate that a withdrawal has wide public support. Sharon's coalition shrank to 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset last week when his main ally, the secular-rights party Shinui, deserted the coalition in a dispute over funding earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox community.

The Palestinian political scene, meanwhile, was roiled by a new flurry of reports over the on-again, off-again candidacy of jailed Palestinian presidential aspirant Marwan Barghouti.

Barghouti, a firebrand militia leader serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, had at first announced he would stay out of the race to replace Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11, and then reversed himself two weeks ago and announced he was running.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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