- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

TEL AVIV — Nearly a month after winning Israel’s parliamentary vote, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party signed a coalition agreement with its main partner, the Labor Party, yesterday, paving the way for a center-left-religious alliance that will seek a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

With an agreement with the Pensioners Party in place, Mr. Olmert’s team hopes to conclude negotiations with the ultra-religious Shas party in the next few days. However, talks with the right-wing Russian immigrant party, Yisrael Beiteinu, have hit a roadblock.

A Kadima-Labor-Shas-Pensioners coalition would control 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and could expect an additional 15 seats if it wins the support of the far-left Meretz party and Arab factions if the pullout from the West Bank is put to a vote in parliament.

“The government has a solid base,” said Eyal Arad, an adviser to Mr. Olmert who participated in the negotiations. “The next government will be judged according to its pre-election promise: to fix Israel’s borders based on demographic considerations.”

The platform of the new government states that Israel unilaterally will evacuate Jewish settlements in the West Bank if negotiations with the Palestinians go nowhere.

Coordination of such a pullback with the United States and the international community is likely to be the focus of talks between Mr. Olmert and President Bush when the former pays his first visit to the White House in the coming weeks. Mr. Arad said Israel and the United States are discussing the second half of May as the probable date for the prime minister’s first state visit.

Israeli press reports said the new government could be sworn in by the end of next week, ending a half-year of political limbo in which the country has been led by a caretaker government. The transition government survived the unexpected massive stroke of Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, and the surprise Palestinian election victory of the Islamic militant Hamas party.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz is expected to become Israeli defense minister in the new government even though he has no military or security expertise. Mr. Peretz will replace Shaul Mofaz, the former army chief of staff who oversaw the evacuation last year from the Gaza Strip.

Negotiations with Yisrael Beiteinu haven’t been officially called off, though the Web site of Israeli newspapers quoted Mr. Olmert as saying he doesn’t expect the party to join the coalition. The right-wing party would serve as a counterbalance in the coalition to the dovish Labor Party — a political equilibrium favored by Mr. Sharon during his tenure.

Political analysts predicted that the agenda of the government would emphasize socioeconomic initiatives as well as the West Bank withdrawal. The new government’s guidelines include raising Israel’s minimum wage by $110 a month, with a commitment to reaching $1,000 a month.

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