- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Leaders of the dovish Labor Party, who have been insisting they would not serve in a government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now appear to be having second thoughts.

The change seemed to gain momentum after a two-hour meeting involving Sharon, Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna, and a few close aides in Jerusalem Monday night.

Neither Sharon's Likud Party or Labor officially divulged details of their talks. "It was an interesting and important meeting," is all Sharon told reporters. "It was a good meeting," an aide to Mitzna confirmed.

But Labor member and former Industry Minister Dalia Itzik told United Press International that Sharon "said he was willing … to dismantle settlements, adopt Bush's roadmap." The so-called U.S. and EU sponsored roadmap to peace calls for reciprocating steps to address Israeli security concerns and ultimately to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Former Labor Knesset Member Weizman Shiri told UPI that he, the prime minister's son Omri Sharon — now a member of the Knesset — and Sharon's chief coalition negotiator Uri Shani reached "understandings" whereby the prime minister would accept the U.S. roadmap for a settlement with the Palestinians, build a fence that would enclose almost the entire West Bank, reduce tax breaks to settlers, and form an inner Cabinet in which Labor and Likud would have an equal number of ministers.

Labor leaders subsequently advocated a closer examination of Sharon's statements.

"We've got to … see whether the prime minister really means (what he says)," Labor's former Science Minister Matan Vilnay argued.

The question is whether it is possible to bridge the ideological differences, former Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir of Labor added.

For the hints to coalesce into a handshake, concessions would need to come on both sides. A first meeting between the two leaders failed when Sharon insisted on not moving controversial settlements and Mitzna said there was no basis for negotiations with Sharon's Likud Party.

Last week Mitzna told Channel 1 television: "If Sharon would say he is ready to begin evacuating settlements in the Gaza Strip, quickly and seriously complete building the (border) fence, transfer funds from settlements to (resolve) social and economic problems, I am a partner to negotiations."

At that time it was not clear whether Mitzna was backtracking on his election pledges, or just presenting a list of demands he was sure Sharon would reject to put the responsibility for a breakdown in talks on the prime minister.

Outgoing Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday Sharon knows Mitzna is putting up a show. However, meetings have a dynamic of their own "that could produce results," Rivlin added.

Throughout the election campaign, and after his resounding victory, Sharon stressed he wanted a broad-based national unity government.

If Labor and the centrist, secular Shinui Party join the coalition, Sharon would have the backing of 74 members in the 120-seat Knesset. The Likud faction has 40 mandates, after the Russian immigrants' party Yisrael Baaliya joined it, while Labor has 19 and Shinui 15.

Such a government would deflect doves' criticism of his actions. As defense minister in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Sharon learned how difficult it was to operate when half the public was against him. He ended up resigning after protests of killings by Israel's allies, the Lebanese Maronite Christian militia in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

If he really intends to seek a settlement with the Palestinians and accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state, he would need the doves' support. Sharon cannot count on the backing of right-wing hawkish parties, his traditional partners. In recent years they turned against Likud leaders who seemed too soft. Indeed, some members in his own Likud faction may turn against him for the same reason.

Sixteen members of the Likud Knesset faction "are openly opposed to the provisional Palestinian State Sharon says he would agree to," noted Hirsh Goodman of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, in a paper published Tuesday.

Partnership with Labor would also help Sharon confront international criticism of Israel. And Sharon desperately needs the $12 billion Israel seeks from the United States in grants and loan guarantees, Goodman added.

"Israel's economic situation has never been worse since 1953. Income from taxes has fallen billions of shekels behind projections, while expenditures on defense, transfer payments to the growing ranks of the unemployed, and losses from core industries such as tourism have left the state's coffers totally depleted," Goodman wrote, referring particularly to the economic impact of the Palestinian intifada, the 28-month-old uprising.

"Consequently, Sharon does not want a coalition that will demand new settlements (which will do little to facilitate the loan guarantees) or advocate policies such as transfer that could encourage comparison to South Africa under apartheid and invite economic sanctions, particularly by Europe," continued Goodman.

So far many Labor leaders have wanted to present a distinct, dovish, alternative to the hawkish Likud. Many argued that their party's previous participation in Sharon's government — until they quit it last October and precipitated early elections — dampened their appeal to voters.

"We promised the public to be an alternative to a Sharon government and we are committed to that promise," former Knesset Speaker Abraham Burg argued.

Mitzna and other Labor Party leaders have already said they would support Sharon from the opposition benches if he takes the right stands. After Monday night's meeting, however, it looks like both sides may be prepared to go farther than that.

"His (Sharon's) far-reaching proposals could … be a very important change in Israel's democratic life," Labor Party Knesset Member Efi Oshaya noted after hearing a report from Mitzna.

Labor Party leaders couldn't help noting, however, that the outgoing government's policy guidelines were very good but fell short when it came to applying them.

This time, "we're not talking of entering with vague guidelines," former Minister Tamir stressed. Labor is seeking details, a timetable that "would make us believe … the prime minister is ready to embark on a new path," she added.

Some Labor Party leaders argued they ought not leave Sharon to form a right-wing hawkish government, because it would not bring peace. But on the other hand, nor can Labor bring peace unless parties who are more hawkish than it support its moves, former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres argued.

"There is no peace without a majority. Peace is not singing songs in the Rabin Square or holding rallies. We have no reserve (support) in the left. We've got to take account of the (political) center," Peres insisted.

Time, and perhaps not much of it, will tell whether those words translate into a handshake with Likud.

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