Israel's Olmert seeks coalition with Labor


JERUSALEM -- Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that his centrist Kadima Party will work to form a governing coalition with the left-leaning Labor Party as a senior partner, an alliance that would promote his plan for a withdrawal from large areas of the West Bank.

Olmert's announcement, with Labor leader Amir Peretz at his side, was the first concrete indication of the shape of the next Israeli government after several days of political jockeying after last week's parliamentary election.

Kadima won 29 seats in the 120-member legislature, and Labor came in second with 19.

"We are happy to announce that immediately after the president charges me with the task of forming a government we will begin coalition negotiations ... to establish as quickly as possible a government in which the Labor Party will be a senior partner," Olmert said.

Olmert will have 42 days to put together a coalition once President Moshe Katsav formally asks him to form the next government, which he is expected to do this week.

Seeking to form a broad-based government that would ensure stability while he pursued his withdrawal plan, Olmert is expected to bring in several smaller parties, including the ultra-Orthodox factions Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Pensioners Party, which won a surprising seven seats.

Peretz, whose aides initially suggested that he might try to assemble a coalition with rightist factions to promote Labor's social agenda, said he would recommend to the president that Olmert form the next government, whose goals would be "speeding up the peace process and dealing with the social gaps in Israel."

Olmert and Peretz said they had agreed in secret talks over the past two days that they would work together.

Under Olmert's plan, dozens of Jewish settlements would be removed as part of a pullback to a line roughly traced by the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, with the largest blocs of settlements incorporated into Israel. Olmert has said he wants to set Israel's permanent border by 2010.

Palestinian officials have rejected the unilateral pullout plan as an attempt to dictate boundaries that would leave them without enough territory for a viable state. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has urged the Israelis to negotiate a final peace settlement, but a new Palestinian government led by the militant group Hamas rejects talks with Israel.

In Jerusalem, doctors postponed planned surgery on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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