Israel's prime minister asks Labor to join his coalition
JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked the moderate Labor Party to join his shaky coalition Monday, an alliance that would strongly boost chances for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Sharon warned hard-liners in his Likud Party, who oppose a partnership with Labor and a Gaza pullout, that he would call early elections if they stand in his way.
The prime minister and Labor leader Shimon Peres met for an hour Monday. Their aides said a coalition deal is expected quickly, despite possible wrangling over senior Cabinet jobs and Labor's demands for changes in government policy.
Labor wants to resume contacts with the Palestinians as the withdrawal gets underway, while Sharon insists on a unilateral pullout and refuses to negotiate with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
However, Sharon and Peres -- the last two members of Israel's founding generation still active in politics -- are expected to set aside their differences. The 80-year-old Peres, a former prime minister, is seen as eager for a last chance to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Sharon, 76, needs Peres for political survival.
The two were coalition partners for most of Sharon's first term, starting in 2001, despite many political disagreements. Before their alliance, Peres had negotiated interim peace deals with the Palestinians while Sharon championed Jewish settlement expansion as a way of preventing Palestinian statehood.
Sharon wants to withdraw from all of Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians, and uproot four isolated settlements in the West Bank by September 2005.
The withdrawals are part of his "unilateral disengagement" plan, which he says will boost Israel's security and reduce friction with the Palestinians.
Sharon has refused to negotiate directly with the Palestinians.
Peres said Monday that a Likud-Labor government must resume contacts with the Palestinians. He said Israel could start withdrawing unilaterally, "but when it comes to implementation, we need another side." He said Sharon agreed only to limited cooperation with the Palestinians, at the level of field commanders.
Labor was expected to accept Sharon's coalition invitation on Tuesday, setting the stage for formal negotiations.
However, Sharon faces stiff resistance in his Cabinet and Likud.
Sharon also has approached two ultra-Orthodox parties about coalition possibilities, Israel Radio reported late Monday. If they join, however, it would lead to a full-scale Cabinet shakeup, as Sharon's main current partner, the secular Shinui, would leave.
Senior Likud ministers fear for their jobs, particularly Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who could lose his portfolio to Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who headed the Foreign Ministry in the past.
Shalom told a meeting of the Likud parliamentary faction that he strongly opposes bringing Labor into the coalition. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ex-premier who wants his old job back, has expressed concern that Labor would hamper his economic reforms.
At least 17 of Likud's 40 parliament members signed a statement opposed to Labor's joining, and more names were expected, according to Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, leader of the Likud rebels.
"If the Labor Party enters the coalition, it will bring a cancer into the Likud," said Uzi Cohen, a member of the party's powerful Central Committee.
However, Sharon told legislators on Monday that he has no choice but to expand the coalition by bringing in Labor. "But if you don't want this or that, we can go to elections, that's the way it is," Sharon said. "I am saying this in the clearest possible way: This situation cannot continue."
Underlining Sharon's shaky hold on power, Israel's 120-member parliament just barely voted down motions of no confidence in the government.
Opponents garnered 59 votes, just two short of the critical absolute majority for bringing down the government, on a motion criticizing the government's economic policies, while Sharon's backers managed only 55 votes. Another vote on a domestic issue ended in a 55-55 tie.
The third motion, about Israel's West Bank separation barrier, was turned back by a large margin, as Labor kept its pledge to abstain in no-confidence motions linked to the Palestinian issue.
The political maneuvering came as two White House officials, Elliot Abrams and Steve Hadley, discussed the Gaza withdrawal plan with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. The envoys were to meet with Sharon on Tuesday.
After Monday's meeting, Qureia said the Americans would help prepare for local elections by year's end and general elections later.
In other developments, the army said it destroyed several buildings on the outskirts of the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza that militants used as cover to fire on Israeli targets.
A 72-year-old Palestinian man who lived alone and was confined to a wheelchair was buried under the rubble of his house, his family said. Doctors said he died of a heart attack.