Defeated Labor Party turns down Sharon's unity government

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The leader of Israel's Labor Party turned down an appeal Monday from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to recreate their centrist partnership, pushing Sharon closer to a hawkish government instead.

Without Labor, Sharon would have to depend on hard-line parties to make up a majority coalition, a government that would likely take even harsher military steps against the Palestinians, including expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Sharon, whose Likud Party handily won last week's election, receiving 38 seats in the parliament to 19 for Labor, still needs to sign up partners to achieve a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

At his meeting with Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, Sharon appealed for a broad-based, stable government with Labor because of the security and economic crisis the country faces after 28 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence, said a statement from Sharon's office.

However, Mitzna said Sharon showed no signs of changing the policies that have deepened the crisis. Mitzna said that when Sharon said "for the umpteenth time" that settlements in the Gaza Strip are necessary for strategic and historic reasons, "I understood that there is no immediate, initial basis for us to deal together with the serious questions that stand before us."

Mitzna took over the Labor Party after it left Sharon's government in November. He set out a new party policy toward the Palestinians. He proposed an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, where soldiers encounter violence every day while guarding about 5,000 Jewish settlers who live among 1 million Palestinians.

Also, he would open immediate negotiations with the Palestinians over a peace treaty. If no agreement is reached in a year, he would draw Israel's border with the West Bank unilaterally, removing settlers and soldiers from most of the territory.

Sharon opposes all of those points. He insists that there can be no peace talks until all Palestinian violence stops, and would offer a truncated state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza only after a long, violence-free interim period.

Mitzna believes that Labor should spend the next term in the opposition. Labor lost support during its 20 months in Sharon's government, as many of its backers saw the party, once a pioneer in peace efforts with the Palestinians, reduced to a fig leaf for Sharon's escalating military campaign against the Palestinians, leaving Israeli forces in control of most West Bank population centers.

However, Labor Party elder statesman Shimon Peres said the party should not rule out teaming up with Sharon again. "I suggest that we make inquiries to see if there is room for a joint stand," he told Israel TV.

Formal coalition negotiations have not yet begun, and Sharon hopes to persuade Mitzna to change his mind, or failing that, to attract some of his party rivals, like Peres, into the government without him. Otherwise, Sharon is faced with building a team with the National Religious Party, which represents the interests of the settlers, and other hard-line factions.

Some of those parties, along with key members of Sharon's own Likud, including Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, favor further crackdowns on the Palestinians and expulsion of Arafat.

Sharon has resisted deporting Arafat despite his own decades-long feud with the Palestinian leader, fearing international condemnation. However, Sharon has declared Arafat "irrelevant," charging him with responsibility for the violence, and has banned any official contact with him.

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